The Chiefs held on for a hard-fought 24-22 win over the Sharks in New Plymouth on Friday. CRAIG LEWIS reports.
Although the Chiefs emerged with the desired outcome, it was far from the most convincing result, with the Sharks producing a performance complemented by both brains and brawn. They also outscored the Chiefs three tries to two.
The Sharks will return to South Africa with six log points from their three-match tour in New Zealand, but a case could certainly be made to suggest they deserved more. The Durban-based side came up against the Chiefs at Yarrow Stadium as complete underdogs, but dominated New Zealand's top team for large parts of the match.
The Sharks particularly deserve plenty of plaudits for their first-half performance. They threw the Chiefs off their natural attacking game and drew them into a kicking battle.
With the Sharks’ physical defence, accurate kicking game and strong contesting at the breakdown denying the Chiefs freedom to attack with speed and space, it was clear that the hosts became increasingly frustrated.
As the Chiefs tried to force matters, the errors started to creep into their game as kicks went out on the full and the handling error count racked up, while the Sharks increasingly began to build some momentum of their own.
Although the Chiefs had initially charged into a 15-3 lead, with centre Seta Tamanivalu exposing a defensive error in the first minute, and then No 8 Michael Leitch latching on to a long pass to go over in the corner, the Sharks promptly battled back.
In an indication of the Sharks’ growing confidence during the latter stages of the first half, they opted to kick a penalty to the corner, and received due reward when hooker Kyle Cooper went over at the back of a perfectly executed lineout drive.
Just before the break, impressive flyhalf Garth April displayed some silky footwork to step his way over the tryline for a superb solo try that suddenly drew the scores level at 15-15.
There’s no doubt the message to the Chiefs at half-time would have been to go back to doing what they’ve done so well season: attack with ball in hand. And that’s exactly what they did at the start of the second stanza as they began to up the tempo and draw the Sharks into some errors.
Aaron Cruden knocked over a couple of penalties to edge the Chiefs back into the lead with just over 15 minutes left to play, while he slotted another decisive three-pointer in the 70th minute as the hosts finally opened up some breathing room.
However, there was another twist in the script as the Sharks set up another lineout drive and replacement Chiliboy Ralepelle this time barrelled over as the Durban-based side came powering right back into the game.
It made for a tense finish, but the Chiefs held on to the ball in the final minutes to emerge as rather fortunate victors, while the visitors had to make do with a consolation losing bonus point.
Chiefs – Tries: Seta Tamanivalu, Michael Leitch. Conversion: Aaron Cruden. Penalties: Cruden (4).
Sharks – Tries: Kyle Cooper, Garth April, Chiliboy Ralepelle. Conversions: April (2). Penalty: April.
Chiefs – 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Toni Pulu, 13 Seta Tamanivalu, 12 Anton Lienert-Brown, 11 Sam McNicol, 10 Aaron Cruden (c), 9 Brad Weber, 8 Michael Leitch, 7 Sam Cane (c), 6 Taleni Seu, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Dominic Bird, 3 Hiroshi Yamashita, 2 Hika Elliot, 1 Mitchell Graham.
Subs: 16 Nathan Harris, 17 Siate Tokolahi, 18 Kane Hames, 19 James Tucker, 20 Lachlan Boshier, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Andrew Horrell, 23 Shaun Stevenson.
Sharks – 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Odwa Ndungane, 13 JP Pietersen, 12 André Esterhuizen, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Garth April, 9 Michael Claassens, 8 Daniel du Preez, 7 Jean-Luc du Preez, 6 Keegan Daniel (c), 5 Stephan Lewies, 4 Etienne Oosthuizen, 3 Lourens Adriaanse, 2 Kyle Cooper, 1 Dale Chadwick.
Subs: 16 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 17 Thomas du Toit, 18 Coenie Oosthuizen, 19 Hyron Andrews, 20 Jean Deysel, 21 Stefan Ungerer, 22 Joe Pietersen, 23 Odwa Ndungane.
Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images