JON CARDINELLI reports on the Sharks’ 30-17 hammering of the Reds in Saturday’s play-off in Brisbane.
After the Bulls’ dismal effort in Christchurch, the Sharks have turned in a rousing physical performance to not only keep their own title hopes alive, but those of a nation.
The resounding victory in Brisbane has set up a semi-final showdown against the Stormers. What this means is that one South African team will definitely progress to the grand final on 4 August.
The Stormers will be difficult to beat in Cape Town, but the Sharks will fancy their chances given the manner of victory at Suncorp Stadium.
It was a superior forward performance that set the platform for what will go down as one of the great Sharks Super Rugby victories. On the back of that forward dominance, the Sharks piled on the points in the first half, and defended like demons in the second.
Some might say that the Sharks had their fair share of luck in this encounter. Indeed, Reds coach Ewen McKenzie would have felt a strong sense of dejavu as starting flyhalf Ben Lucas was carried off in the 21st minute, an injury that forced star scrmhalf Will Genia to shift to No 10.
Lucas had been ineffective while he was on the park, and it didn’t help that his forwards were copping a hiding at the collisions and breakdowns. The Reds certainly missed Quade Cooper’s decision making in that key position, and after Lucas cried off with injury, the Reds also missed Genia’s impact at No 9.
But while this certainly worked in the Sharks’ favour, the visitors made a great deal of their own luck. Travelling across the world for this fixture was never going to be easy, and doing so without Frans Steyn and Pat Lambie was expected to detract from their performance.
They went into the game as underdogs, but from the first whistle they showed the mongrel, desire and precision to win the key battles and eventually the match.
Apart from the raw power at the collisions (the Sharks pack was superb and the decision to play Willem Alberts at No 4 was vindicated), the decision making by the heavies was a real highlight.
The Sharks forwards would place their counterparts under pressure at the rucks, force the turnover and then produce some dazzling offloads that kept the movement alive.
They converted every early opportunity, racing to a 10-0 lead inside 13 minutes. By the half-hour mark they were 20-3 up, Freddie Michalak nailing a drop goal to keep the scoreboard ticking.
Genia would leave his mark on this match with an important play moments later. Spotting Jannie du Plessis defending on the wing, Genia directed play left and linked up smartly with Scott Higginbotham. The Wallabies loosie delivered the final pass to Genia, and at 20-10 the Reds were still in with a chance.
The period before and after half-time belonged to the Reds, but they were undone by their high-error rate as well as some stunning Sharks defence.
In fact, it was a sharp piece of pressure defence that created the Sharks’ next try, Charl McLeod reading the play beautifully and picking off a Genia pass.
The scrumhalf raced 75m to score, and at 27-10, the whole complexion of the game changed again. Another Sharks score would win the game, and the Reds would resort to some desperate tactics in an attempt to close that massive gap.
They turned down numerous shots at goal in search of a seven-pointer that would bring them closer, but their inability to win the collisions cost them at every turn.
While the Sharks spent almost the entire third quarter defending in their own territory, their ferocity at the point of contact was as rabid as was at the start of the game. They turned the Reds over from five metres out on several occasions, and again it was sharp decision making that cut down the Reds’ attacking space.
The Sharks had a further chance to score when Lwazi Mvovo broke from deep to spark a great period of attacking rugby with the offload in contact again a prominent feature. The ball eventually flew to the hapless Meyer Bosman, who tripped over his own feet and fell agonisingly short of the tryline. Fortunately for the Sharks, it was a gaffe that didn’t cost them on the scoreboard.
The Reds finished strongly in the final five minutes, but by then the result was beyond doubt. Radike Samo crossed the tryline and Genia converted, but all this served to do was lend some respectability to the scoreline.
The Sharks were more dominant that the final scoreline suggested, and that final try will not detract from what was their best defensive performance in 2012.
Reds – Tries: Will Genia, Radike Samo. Conversions: Mike Harris, Genia. Penalty: Harris.
Sharks – Tries: JP Pietersen, Paul Jordaan, Charl McLeod. Conversions: Freddie Michalak (3). Penalties: Michalak (2). Drop goal: Michalak.