Steely Sharks compound Blues’ woes

RYAN VREDE reports on a 29-23 victory for the Sharks over the Blues that plunges the Auckland franchise into crisis.

There was a shared sense before this fixture that technical and tactical superiority would be less important to the Blues than sheer guts and grit. They have endured a battering in the press and public for their mediocrity and their rebuttal had to be good. It wasn’t. Far from it. There was only a small measure of the guts and grit their situation demanded. Their attacking play was sterile and their defence continues to be generous. Coach Pat Lam is surely now on the brink of losing his job.

Coming back from 15-0 down to trail 15-13 at the break suggested that they still had a little character. They were undoubtedly the better team in the first half, the Sharks’ two tries in that period coming thanks to two intercepts. Outside of that the Durban side failed to trouble their hosts. Certainly they were physical and organised on defence, but they profited from the Blues’ wastefulness in excellent positions. The Blues would finish with 17 handling errors and this was ultimately terminal to their cause.

The best of their spurned opportunities fell to Ma’a Nonu, who knocked on 7m short of the tryline. The Blues had reigned themselves in after a tactically cavalier start to the match and by the 30 minute mark were troubling the Sharks with their ability to play through multiple phases as well as their lineout and breakdown contest, the latter being the source of numerous broken field opportunities they failed to exploit.

But they would have been satisfied with the two-point deficit going down the tunnel and then elated at scoring a converted try just after the restart to take the lead for the first time. However, in typical Blues fashion, they fell into a deep defensive slumber and conceded two converted tries in five minutes, the first from Keegan Daniel and the second a controversial Tim Whitehead score. The midfielder clearly knocked the ball forward into a Blues player but recollected en route to the tryline.

The Sharks’ bench gave them fresh attacking and defensive impetus but they couldn’t manage the try that would surely have sealed the result. With 13 minutes to play Gareth Anscombe kicked his side to within a converted try of taking the lead. But the Blues looked every bit a team who lacked the belief to grab a win from that position. They made fundamental errors, while the Sharks were tactically masterful in closing down the game.

They return to Durban with five points from this match and two tour wins from four matches – an acceptable return that aids their push to top the SA conference. The Blues are left to pick up the pieces of a season that one senses is yet to reach its nadir.