Every champion team needs a season-defining performance. The Sharks delivered theirs in Christchurch on Saturday, writes MARK KEOHANE.
The 30-25 win was magnificent. It was among the finest in the franchise’s history. It was fashioned on defence, courage, camaraderie, a mixture of experience and youth and a coach who knows how to win.
Jake White has been brilliant with the Sharks this season. The World Cup-winning coach appreciates the strength of his team and also the limitations.
White has also never been shy to entrust youngsters with responsibility and with 17 minutes to go he gave all his young men the chance to make history. And they did.
When Willem Alberts got sin-binned with 17 minutes to go, the Sharks, reduced to 13 men against 15, trailed 22-20. But the injection of fresh legs and minds that have not known a decade of losing in New Zealand meant that the visitors played to make history and not merely be another statistic in the history of these two teams.
The Sharks had drawn 26-26 in 1997 and lost nine other times in New Zealand against the Crusaders. They’d only ever won three in 17.
But on Saturday they couldn’t have made a greater championship statement in the manner in which they beat the Crusaders. It meant they retained the championship lead they have enjoyed from the opening week. That takes some doing.
The Sharks have won in Australia and in New Zealand and historically have enjoyed success against the Blues in Auckland. Even if they don’t succeed in Auckland, two tour wins should set them up for a home semi-final and a top-of-the-table finish would set them up for the possibility of a home final. The key to winning this tournament is hosting the final.
White spoke all week of making history. You got a sense something special was in the offering, but when Jean Deysel got red-carded in the 17th minute, the feeling was this was another history-making opportunity lost.
The gods smiled kindly on the Sharks and on South African rugby.
This was an away win desperately needed in the context of the season. It shows South African teams can win in New Zealand’s south and that they can win when confronted with the greatest adversity.
It doesn’t come tougher than the Crusaders in Christchurch. And then to play 54 minutes with 14 against 15 and 10 minutes with 13 against 15!
The Sharks physicality always troubled the Crusaders, who played like a team believing the game had been gifted to them in the 17th minute.
They never had the urgency of the Sharks and they never appeared to have the desire. The Sharks were desperate and determined and they refused to be beaten.
White prides himself on his teams' defensive ability and their defensive organisation. The Sharks' defensive effort in Christchurch was one of the finest illustrations of how defence wins games and how an organised and structured defence can squeeze the life out of any attack.
This is one win never to be forgotten and it should be given the necessary celebration.
What a day for the Sharks. What a day for Jake White.
Photo: Martin Hunter/Getty Images
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