Ruan Pienaar kicked a long-range penalty in injury time to hand the Sharks a 29-26 win in Wellington.
Pienaar’s kicking and maturity in general play over the last two weeks has been impressive, and he’s played a massive part in their two wins against Kiwi opposition.
The Sharks held what looked a comfortable 11-point lead with eight minutes remaining, but they allowed the Canes back into the contest as the hosts drew level in the dying stages. Pienaar then stepped up and handled the pressure magnificently, kicking a monster 50m penalty with the final act of the game.
Pienaar was impressive throughout, and although he missed an early attempt at goal, the Sharks opened the scoring through Patrick Lambie. The Sharks’ fullback benefited from Pienaar’s quick-tap from a penalty and strolled over on the blindside as his side held a 7-0 lead after eight minutes.
Both teams looked tired given their travel and tour scenarios, and the rain in the first half didn’t help the match as a spectacle. The visitors dominated territory in the opening half, while their scrum was also strong with John Smit at loosehead.
Down 13-6 at half-time, the Canes changed their halfbacks with Piri Weepu and Aaron Cruden replacing Tyson Keats and Willie Ripia. Immediately Weepu slotted two penalties to narrow the lead to just one, while in general play the pair increased the tempo as the Sharks had to defend for the majority of the final 40 minutes.
The Canes – with Cruden attacking the gain-line – looked to maintain possession in the second half and always tested the Sharks’ defence. The hosts opted to run most of their ball from deep, and while the Sharks’ defence was tested at times, the tactic didn’t produce results.
Cruden made some telling breaks, but the Canes’ finishing left a lot to be desired as the Sharks somehow held on, despite missing many one-on-one tackles.
On their final match of the tour, Sharks coach John Plumtree made many changes on the hour-mark in an attempt to revitalise the tiring visitors. Andy Goode, Willem Alberts and Smit all departed, as Rory Kockott, Jean Deysel and Beast Mtawarira all made the desired impact.
After 65 minutes Pienaar nudged over a penalty, and from the ensuing kick-off the Sharks broke from deep. Bismarck du Plessis, Jacques Botes, Kockott and Stefan Terblanche were all prominent in the magnificent build-up that featured neat passing, with JP Pietersen taking the final offload.
But just as they did last week against the Highlanders, the Sharks relaxed just as they had obtained a comfortable lead. Ma’a Nonu scored the hosts’ first try of the match after 73 minutes while Victor Victor also took advantage of some sloppy defending to draw the scores level with two minutes left.
But Pienaar stepped up, and the much-maligned player silenced his doubters.
The Sharks face the Reds next week and will have to pick themselves up for another testing encounter. They should, however, be lifted by a return to Durban.
By Grant Ball