The Sharks were unconvincing in overcoming the Highlanders 23-15 at King’s Park.
Some would argue that after two defeats on the bounce a win was all that mattered. But their superiority across all facets of play should have ensured a greater winning margin. They missed out on a bonus-point they should have secured, and that could be the difference between a home or away semi-final.
The Sharks completely dominated the opening exchanges, smashing the Highlanders at scrum time and pinning them back into their territory through accurate tactical kicking.
However, the diabolical fundamental skills that plagued their game against the Crusaders a fortnight ago had returned, and they also exhibited the defensive lapses that cost them that game and ones against the Reds and Cheetahs this season.
This was the reason the Landers were still in the game at half-time (17-15) when they should have been dead and buried. Catching and passing are basics that players of the Sharks’ calibre should have no difficultly with, as should ball protection at the breakdown. Yet for the third match in succession they displayed a schoolboy standard in this regard and this must be worrying for their coaching staff with two testing matches remaining.
The Landers looked as devoid of a plan and creativity as they did against the Stormers last week. They simply could not front at the collisions on defence and attack, and as a result were made to scramble on defence because of the speed the Sharks were recycling their breakdown ball at. In addition, they were mauled at scrum time, robbing them of a primary attacking platform.
But the Sharks’ ineptitude kept them dreaming of the most unlikely win.
Poor defence gifted the Landers their first try, one coming very much against the run of play. The Landers stretched the Sharks right, then swept left, but the foray seemed nothing more than hopeful until hooker Jason Rutledge slid over in the corner.
The Sharks shifted gears and scored a try on the counter-attack which was finished by Steven Sykes. An excellent interchange between JP Pietersen, who ignited the move, Ryan Kankowski and Bismarck du Plessis paved the way for the lock to score.
Eight minutes later it was Jacques Botes celebrating after Mathew Berquist spilled the ball in his in-goal area. Botes was quickest to react and Rory Kockott banked the extras to give his side a 14 point lead.
The Sharks looked like blowing the Landers away at this stage, but butchered a couple of excellent opportunities, the main villain being Bismarck du Plessis. If the Sharks’ fundamentals were schoolboy collectively, the Springbok hooker was pre-primary in standard.
They allowed the Landers back into the contest just before the break when Jimmy Cowan punched up around a poorly guarded ruck fringe. Berquist struck the post with the conversion attempt, but having been completely swamped for the preceding 40 minutes, the Landers would’ve been more than pleased with the 17-15 scoreline.
The Sharks tightened their game up after the break, driving into the Landers’ half and taking advantage of their ill-discipline by slotting two penalties for a comfortable eight-point advantage.
However, they rarely troubled the Landers’ defensive line, the closest they came being a 75m break by JP Pietersen which culminated in the ball being turned over on the 5m line. They simply weren’t allowed to get the speed in the recycle they had enjoyed in the first half and as a result failed to test the Landers.
To rub salt into an already gaping wound, Kockott had a brain explosion and was rightfully red carded for a punch on Adam Thomson. He will be lucky to escape without incurring a suspension.
The victory will improve confidence, but the Sharks will be acutely aware that a performance like this against the Waratahs in Durban next week may see a very different result.
By Ryan Vrede