Sharks tops in Newlands streetfight

JON CARDINELLI writes the Sharks were tactically and physically superior in their epic 26-19 semi-final win over the Stormers on Saturday.

The result means that the Sharks will battle the Chiefs for the Super Rugby title next Saturday.

The Sharks will journey to Australasia for the decider, but on the back of a spirited showing in the semi-final, you wouldn’t rule out the possibility of Keegan Daniel lifting that coveted trophy.

They’ve have shown themselves to be the side for the big occasion in 2012, winning the crunch league match against the Bulls in Durban and then smashing the Reds in Brisbane in the qualifying play-off.

They were deserved winners in Saturday’s semi-final, and again it was the way they finished that proved decisive to the outcome. They absorbed a tremendous amount of pressure, picked their moment, and then Daniel made the turnover that killed the contest.

That is not to say that there was anything wrong with the way they started. There was always a danger that the Sharks would run out of puff in the final quarter, and so they needed to put the Stormers under pressure from the outset.

There were some moments when it seemed as if the Stormers would get on top. Lock Eben Etzebeth bulldozed Bismarck du Plessis early in the piece, and for a few seconds the Springbok hooker looked a punch-drunk boxer, teetering and swaying, and many would have anticipated a plunge to the proverbial canvas.

But like his team, Du Plessis not only recovered from the early knock, but soldiered on powerfully. The backlash was quite a thing to behold.

Those who had come to Newlands expecting a clash of styles must have been bitterly disappointed. The Sharks played clinical, smart rugby.

Just as their physicality at the collisions and power at the scrums were highlights, their halfbacks used that possession expertly to force the Stormers into costly errors.

Charl McLeod was on target with his box kicks, and Freddie Michalak produced a virtuoso performance from the flyhalf position. The Stormers battled to deal with the aerial bombardment, dropping a number of high balls or in some cases completely misjudging the garrowen.

A late change to the Sharks’ line-up saw Riaan Viljoen starting at fullback, and his cannon of a boot was expertly utilised. The Sharks had troubled the Stormers for much of the first half, but it was Viljoen’s mortar bomb that allowed the visitors to strike a telling blow. Viljoen put the ball up and Louis Ludik beat Stormers fullback Joe Pietersen in the air, and evaded the cover defence to score.

Michalak kicked the conversion to stretch the Sharks’ lead to 10 points. Peter Grant managed to narrow the deficit right before half-time to leave his side trailing by seven, but the Stormers would have been bitterly disappointed with that first-half return. They had enjoyed numerous visits to the opposition’s 22, but shocking handling and decision making had let the Sharks off the hook.

Some may call it a choke, but the Stormers never got themselves into a position to win this match. They failed to take their opportunities early in the game, and then were forced to play catch-up rugby in the second half.

The Sharks changed tack in the third quarter, keeping it close and striving to build on their seven-point lead.

After sending two drop-goal attempts wide, Michalak nailed a penalty. Grant answered with one at the other end, but it was the Sharks who had the better of territory during this period and made the most of another key opportunity, with JP Pietersen scoring on the hour.

At 23-9 the game looked to be over, but as anticipated, the Sharks started to feel the negative effects of travel. The Stormers took advantage, with Gio Aplon crossing the tryline in the 67th minute.

Grant goaled a further penalty to make it a four-point ball game, but it was here that the Sharks showed their defensive mettle. For the Stormers, it was a period where they showcased their attacking impotence, and lack of composure.

The Stormers were well placed in the opposition 22 but their attack was too lateral. And the Sharks never panicked.

They maintained their discipline on defence, and again, when the big opportunity arrived, they took it.

This time it was the captain who made the big play: a breakdown steal that won the game. The Sharks counter-rucked and Daniel latched onto the ball, wrenching it away and hacking it into the crowd.