The Crusaders defended for the entire second half yet held on for a 13-10 victory over the Sharks.
There are simply no words to describe how wasteful the Sharks were this evening. They should have won by at least 20 points, yet slumped to their second successive defeat and in the process put themselves under massive pressure going into the final stages of the tournament.
Credit has to go to a Saders, but they were often passive observers as the Sharks conspired to botch a plethora of chances through countless handling errors. However, while there were prime offenders, it was their collective ineptitude that was to blame.
For a squad boasting 16 Springboks against one that was more guts than class, this result simply wasn’t good enough.
Tackle point dominance was always going to be key for the Sharks, given that the Crusaders boasted some very good contesters at the breakdown, marshalled by the best of them all, Richie McCaw. They excelled in this facet of play early on, with their primary ball carriers regularly breaching the advantage line, and in doing so limiting the potency of McCaw and co. If only that had lasted.
This is precisely how they crafted their first try. Numerous phases were set up before the ball was shifted down the backline to Steven Sykes, who stepped inside the cover defence to score. Rory Kockott slotted the touchline conversion.
The Crusaders, having built a reputation as the tournament’s most formidable attacking unit, have had to be far more conservative than they have in previous campaigns as a result injuries and some of their key players joining European clubs. However, testament to their class is how well they’ve adapted.
You’d swear you were watching the Bulls, such was the number of times they put boot to ball in search of field position. That tactic proved a fruitful one for them as they pinned the Sharks into their half and built pressure.
There was a sense of inevitability about the Saders’ try, but the manner in which it came would have disappointed the Sharks’ coaching staff. The Saders played off the top of a lineout and set up a phase in centrefield. Kieran Reid punched up on second phase, committed two defenders and offloaded to Thomas Waldrom who in turn dished out to McCaw. Stephen Brett had sunk a penalty earlier and added to his points tally with the conversion.
The Sharks needed someone to control the flow and tempo of the match, as well as to give some direction to a side that at times looked decidedly rudderless. That man wasn’t flyhalf Frans Steyn, who despite being fed with quick ruck ball in the first half, failed to make a telling contribution.
The Saders seemed acutely aware that he struggles when his time and space is reduced and pressured him accordingly, resulting in a series of poor decisions, not least of all an ambitious left-footed drop goal which sailed well wide.
When the hosts did get it right they looked like potential champions, but those moments were sorely lacking, particularly when they got themselves into good field positions, as they did three minutes from the break only to see captain Johann Muller cough the ball up eight metres short of the tryline.
Trailing 10-7 at half-time the Sharks needed a jack up, and John Plumtree attempted to galvanise his side with the early introduction of Beast Mtawarira and Waylon Murray.
Mtawarira’s impact was instant, but his powerful carries were undone by the Sharks’ errors in the red zone. The Saders, conversely were clinical when they ventured into the Sharks’ 22, Andy Ellis sinking a drop-goal to extend their lead to six.
The Sharks crafted enough opportunities to win comfortably, but with every one they butchered their desperation became more observable. The best of those opportunities fell to Stefan Terblanche who spilled the ball with a two-man overlap, and Odwa Ndungane who simply had to catch the pill and would have cruised over.
The Saders played the situation infinitely better, shunning an expansive approach for a percentage one marked by effective phase play and accurate tactical kicking. They scrambled well in defence and started to dominate the breakdown contest, which wasn’t difficult given that the Sharks were routinely isolating themselves in search of the decisive score.
Kockott finally rotated the scoreboard with a penalty, setting up an enthralling final 10 minutes. It had shades of their clash in 2007, where Ndungane scored a last-gasp winner. But this time there would be no such dramatic ending
The Sharks have a break next week, and could find themselves in mid-table at the end of the round. They’ll need to address the fundamentals of the game in that period because another performance like this will see their play-off chances fade further.
By Ryan Vrede