The Blues ended a 10-match losing streak against the Sharks when they clinched a hard-fought 23-18 victory in Auckland on Saturday. CRAIG LEWIS reports.
Despite leading for the better part of the first hour, the tiring Sharks simply couldn’t finish off a determined Blues side that just kept on running the ball back at the visitors. It's the third loss in a row for the Durban-based side, and a promising start to their campaign has now gone decidedly pear-shaped.
The Sharks led 11-10 at the break, once again having made the most of limited opportunities, while relying on their scrambling defence to keep the hosts at bay. Willie le Roux also featured prominently in the opening stanza as he regularly came in at first receiver, while using his left boot to good effect.
With a strong kicking game and much-improved scrum aiding the Sharks’ cause, they initially opened up an 11-3 lead after half an hour, with Beast Mtawarira scoring the solitary try and Joe Pietersen slotting a couple of penalties.
Although the Blues enjoyed the better of possession in the first period, they made a number of handling errors, while the Sharks’ defensive pressure also created some invaluable turnovers.
The Sharks certainly displayed some renewed intent when they had ball in hand, but as SARugbymag.co.za's Opta-powered stats indicated, they were still forced to make 67 tackles to the Blues’ 24 in the first half.
Just before the break, the Blues finally managed to finish off an attacking opportunity, with George Moala – who had come on to replace the injured Rene Ranger – scoring an important try to reduce the deficit to just one point at half-time.
However, the Sharks restored an eight-point advantage as Le Roux again joined the line and put a flying Paul Jordaan away with a well-timed offload. Having travelled from Durban and then been forced to make a host of tackles in the opening hour at Eden Park, the Sharks’ conditioning and the impact of the bench was always going to be a key factor in the final quarter.
The Blues had drawn three points back with a 56th-minute penalty, and then came a decisive moment as winger Rieko Ioane slipped through a tackle and broke away to score a superb solo try that suddenly put the hosts in front by two with less than 15 minutes left to play.
After all their hard work, it was a sucker punch for the Sharks, as would have been a couple of lost lineouts in prime territory as the match headed into the final stages.
One final penalty to West handed the Blues the five-point win, leaving the Sharks to rue a missed opportunity, with just a losing bonus point to show for their efforts.
Blues – Tries: George Moala, Rieko Ioane. Conversions: Ihaia West (2). Penalties: West (3).
Sharks – Tries: Beast Mtawarira, Paul Jordaan. Conversion: Joe Pietersen. Penalties: Pietersen (2).
Blues – 15 Lolagi Visinia, 14 Rieko Ioane, 13 Rene Ranger, 12 Piers Francis, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Ihaia West, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Steven Luatua, 7 Tanerau Latimer/Kara Pryor, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Josh Bekhuis, 4 Hoani Matenga, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 James Parsons (c), 1 Sam Prattley.
Subs: 16 Quentin MacDonald, 17 Namatahi Waa, 18 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 19 Kara Pryor/Joe Edwards, 20 Akira Ioane, 21 Billy Guyton, 22 Matt McGahan, 23 George Moala.
Sharks – 15 Willie le Roux, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Paul Jordaan, 12 André Esterhuizen, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Joe Pietersen, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Dan du Preez, 7 Jean-Luc du Preez, 6 Philip van der Walt, 5 Stephan Lewies, 4 Etienne Oosthuizen, 3 Lourens Adriaanse, 2 Franco Marais, 1 Beast Mtawarira (c).
Subs: 16 Kyle Cooper, 17 Thomas du Toit, 18 Coenie Oosthuizen, 19 Hyron Andrews, 20 Keegan Daniel, 21 Michael Claassens, 22 Garth April, 23 Odwa Ndungane.
Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images