The Hurricanes punished an inconsistent Sharks side to claim a 32-24 bonus-point win in Wellington. JON CARDINELLI reports.
The result marks the Hurricanes' 10th win of the season, and consolidates their position at the top of the overall log. Meanwhile, the Sharks have now lost five on the trot. James Marshall's 80th-minute penalty goal at the Cake Tin also denied the visitors a deserved bonus point.
While the Sharks deserved something from this match, it would be a stretch to say they deserved to win. Overall, it was another inconsistent and inaccurate display.
The Hurricanes weren't at their best in this fixture. Their lineout was a shambles, especially in the first half, They were missing three key All Blacks, namely flyhalf Beauden Barrett, wing Julian Savea, and scrumhalf TJ Perenara. And yet, despite the changes to personnel and the high-error rate on attack, they still managed to score four tries against this Sharks team. They also showed good composure to close the game out in those final minutes.
The Sharks' desperation for any sort of win was patent from the outset. They scored the game's first try through a Hurricanes mistake at a lineout. They attempted to maximise their strength at this set piece over the course of the contest, but the ploy didn't always pay off.
Indeed, they overplayed their hand at the end of the first half when they turned down a shot on goal in favour of the lineout drive. The Hurricanes defence managed to withstand that assault, win the turnover, and go to the break with a 14-10 lead. It was a big moment in the game.
The Sharks will lament their first-half inaccuracies as well as their poor discipline. Three players were guilty of head-high tackles in the opening 40 minutes, and it came as no surprise when the third offender, flank Etienne Oosthuizen, was sent to the sin bin. While the loss of the player didn't cost the Sharks on the scoreboard, it stalled their momentum.
Some will focus on the Sharks' improved defensive showing in the second half, but how different the game may have been had they made their tackles in the first stanza.
The first two tries scored by the Hurricanes exposed the Sharks' frailties in this area. The line defence was caught out in the buildup to Cory Jane's try, while Conrad Smith took advantage of some amateurish tackling to score his team's second.
The Sharks improved at the breakdown in the second stanza, but battled to control possession and territory. They scored a good try against the run of play in the 48th minute, with S'bura Sithole rounding off the movement. The opportunity was created from a Bismarck du Plessis turnover at the breakdown.
But the Sharks' effort waned in the final quarter. Du Plessis left the park with a knee injury shortly before the hour-mark, and the pack began to lose its edge.
The Sharks were penalised for obstruction when yet another maul crossed the Hurricanes tryline. They would score soon after that through Odwa Ndugane, but again, this try was a created from a turnover.
The Hurricanes didn't panic as the game entered the final 10 minutes. Marshall missed a relatively easy penalty attempt that would have levelled the scores, but the Hurricanes maintained their focus.
The hosts eventually breached the Sharks defence, with flank Ardie Savea offloading to Jeremy Thrush before he was dumped into touch. That try gave the Hurricanes the bonus point, and the lead.
The Sharks began to take chances in those last few minutes, and transgressed to hand the Hurricanes yet another scoring opportunity.
This time, Marshall was on target with the penalty attempt. The kick brought an end to the game, and denied the Sharks a consolatory bonus point. They have now lost five games in succession, and both of their tour matches in New Zealand.
Hurricanes – Tries: Cory Jane, Conrad Smith, Reggie Goodes, Jeremy Thrush. Conversions: James Marshall (3). Penalties: Marshall (2).
Sharks – Tries: Bismarck du Plessis, S'bura Sithole, Odwa Ndungane. Conversions: Frans Steyn (3). Penalty: Steyn.
Hurricanes – 15 Nehe Milner-Skudder, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Conrad Smith (c), 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Matt Proctor, 10 James Marshall, 9 Chris Smylie, 8 Victor Vito, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Blade Thomson, 5 James Broadhurst, 4 Jeremy Thrush, 3 Ben Franks, 2 Motu Matu'u, 1 Chris Eves.
Subs: 16 Brayden Mitchell, 17 Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, 18 Reggie Goodes, 19 Callum Gibbins, 20 Brad Shields, 21 Frae Wilson, 22 Otere Black, 23 Rey Lee-Lo.
Sharks – 15 Lwazi Mvovo, 14 Odwa Ndungane, 13 JP Pietersen, 12 Frans Steyn, 11 S'bura Sithole, 10 Lionel Cronjé, 9 Stefan Ungerer, 8 Renaldo Bothma, 7 Etienne Oosthuizen, 6 Marcell Coetzee, 5 Marco Wentzel (c), 4 Stephan Lewies, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Beast Mtawarira.
Subs: 16 Franco Marais, 17 Dale Chadwick, 18 Lourens Adriaanse, 19 Mouritz Botha, 20 Kyle Cooper, 21 Conrad Hoffmann, 22 André Esterhuizen, 23 Waylon Murray.
Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images