RYAN VREDE reports on the Chiefs’ 18-12 victory over the Sharks at Kings Park.
The Sharks spoke this week about finding the synergy and cohesion that has been lacking for most of their campaign. It didn’t happen for them tonight for a plethora of reasons, most notably their inability to retain the ball through enough phases for them to build line-depleting pressure on their opponents.
When they weren’t knocking the ball on in contact or, at times, under no pressure whatsoever, or overcooking lineouts, their ill-discipline further undermined their cause. Unseasonable humidity complicated handling, and while both sides were guilty of fundamental errors in this regard, the Sharks could have aided their effort by holding the ball through their forwards more often than they were willing to do.
Indeed they bossed possession and territory and when they were direct they looked capable of unlocking the Chiefs’ stingy defence. Instead they often went wide without earning the right to do so first, and were met by organised, physical and intelligent defence.
The Chiefs absorbed early pressure well then struck against the run of play. A multi-phase move eroded the Sharks’ defensive line and they shifted the ball wide to Aaron Cruden who cut through amidst calls of obstruction from Sharks players. A review of that score suggested they may have had a solid argument for a penalty. Cruden converted and later kicked a penalty to give his side breathing room.
Much of the Sharks’ focus had been on nullifying the efficient strike runners in the Chiefs’ pack as a means of diluting Sonny Bill Williams’ potency. But the midfielder rendered himself a relative non-factor with his worst performance in Super Rugby. His offloads failed to find their mark and his hands seemed to have been dipped in industrial strength lubricant before kick-off. However, even with the Chiefs’ most dangerous attacking weapon blunted, the Sharks couldn’t get the precision into their attacking game to capitalise.
Pat Lambie kicked three penalties either side of half-time to draw his side within a point. The Chiefs reverted to a more forward-orientated in the second half while the Sharks retained faith in their sterile method. Their fans would have hoped their replacements would have injected some penetration into their play, exploiting the Chiefs’ travel-weary legs and minds.
And they gradually grew in stature, Lambie kicking a penalty to set up a tense finish. You sensed the Sharks would end stronger but they never had the patience and tactical purpose to steal the victory. They became increasingly frantic as full-time neared and in so doing became easier to repel. Chiefs scrumhalf Augustine Pulu scored an audacious try after the siren sounded, faking to kick for touch then breaking through a gap and dancing down the touchline.
The Sharks needed to win this one to keep their charge for the conference title on track. Dropping home points has often been terminal to teams’ ambitions and you have to think that this one will come back to haunt them.