The Highlanders scored four tries in a resounding 34-18 defeat of the Sharks at Kings Park. JON CARDINELLI reports.
The result is an upset anyway you look at it. The table-topping Sharks were big favourites to beat the hit-and-miss Highlanders. Prior to this fixture, they had never lost to the Highlanders at Kings Park.
But lose they did. In fact, they were never in the contest. The Highlanders dominated for much of the game and were deserved winners.
No other Super Rugby side has defeated the Sharks at Kings Park this season. No other side has put four tries past the Sharks in 2014. On Friday, the Highlanders accomplished both objectives with relative ease.
The Sharks supporters will point to the late withdrawal of captain Bismarck du Plessis and flanker Jean Deysel. Indeed, this did hit the home side hard, as they missed the presence of Du Plessis and Deysel at the tackle.
But they certainly had their opportunities. Lwazi Mvovo should have been awarded a try early in the first half, after Charl McLeod had broken from the base of the ruck and thrown a basketball-type pass to the support player. Referee Jaco Peyper got it wrong when he ruled a no-try because of an off-the-ball incident at the ruck.
While Peyper had a shocker with the whistle, his poor officiating cost both sides. The game may have been different had Mvovo's try stood, as the Sharks had the momentum at that stage of the game.
However, the Highlanders were also hard done by when Frans Steyn deliberately knocked the ball down in the red zone during the first half and escaped sanction. The visitors were also unfairly punished in the second period when lock Joe Wheeler was sent to the sin bin.
That said, the Highlanders were the better team on the night. The Sharks were poor at the breakdown and their kicking game let them down. Their attack lacked both organisation and penetration and it was a telling indictment that they could score only three points while Wheeler was off the park.
Tim Swiel was substituted as early as the 55th minute after an indifferent night in the flyhalf position. He scored all 18 of the Sharks' points, but once again made too many errors in general play.
Unfortunately for the hosts, Swiel wasn't the only culprit. The Sharks dropped passes in prime attacking positions. Their intensity and accuracy at the rucks was especially poor in the second half, although credit must be given to the Highlanders for their performance in this area.
Lima Sopoaga kicked brilliantly for the visitors, for goal and out of hand. It wasn't a typical performance by the Higlanders in that they played a territorial game. The men from Dunedin did, however, live up to their reputation for translating turnovers into points.
The Sharks will be a different prospect when a few of their key players return from injuries in the coming weeks. But there's no denying that they missed an opportunity to finish this part of their campaign with a win, and that their defensive effort was well below their usual standards.
Sharks – Penalties: Tim Swiel (6).
Highlanders – Tries: Richard Buckman, Aaron Smith, Shane Christie, Malakai Fekitoa. Conversions: Lima Sopoaga (4). Penalties: Sopoaga (2).
Sharks – 15 Lwazi Mvovo, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Paul Jordaan, 12 Frans Steyn, 11 S’bura Sithole, 10 Tim Swiel, 9 Charl McLeod (c), 8 Keegan Daniel, 7 Willem Alberts, 6 Marcell Coetzee, 5 Stephan Lewies, 4 Etienne Oosthuizen, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Kyle Cooper, 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Subs: 16 Franco Marais 17 Dale Chadwick, 18 Lourens Adriaanse, 19 Tera Mtembu, 20 Ryan Kankowski, 21 Stefan Ungerer, 22 Heimar Williams, 23 SP Marais.
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Richard Buckman, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu (c), 7 Shane Christie, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Jarrad Hoeata, 3 Chris King, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Kane Hames.
Subs: 16 Ged Robinson, 17 Craig Millar, 18 Ma'afu Fia, 19 Josh Bekhuis, 20 Gareth Evans, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Trent Renata, 23 John Hardie.
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While he blew hot and cold in general play, Tim Swiel converted six of his eight attempts on goal and this kept the Sharks in the game. To be perfectly honest, no Sharks player enjoyed a good outing.
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Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images