It was a night of disgrace and delight for the Sharks as they edged the Chiefs 12-11 in an ugly representation of southern hemisphere rugby, writes MARK KEOHANE.
The Sharks won a match they simply had to in order to sustain an interest in the South African conference and push for the play-offs.
How they won is not for celebration. That they won is what needs to be celebrated.
They did it playing 13 versus 14, but the pre-season talk of expansive rugby and the ball beating the man was simply pre-season talk to what emerged in Durban.
The battle was initially brutal and physical, then it turned messy and illegal. Chiefs hooker Hika Elliot was red-carded in the 15th minute for attacking Beast Mtawarira’s head with a shoulder charge.
A few minutes later, Sharks captain Bismarck du Plessis was shown red for a kick at Liam Messam’s head. It was disgusting and disgraceful from a player of his stature and from the Sharks skipper. Du Plessis is the world’s best hooker when on form but whereas he has always shown passion, he just looked angry and miserable. His action can’t be excused.
Similarly Frans Steyn, who was also shown a red card for a tip-tackle before the half-hour mark.
The Chiefs led 11-9 at half-time, and with a one-man advantage, would have believed themselves capable of closing out the game. But they struggled to master the conditions in the second half and they lacked patience and game management in the second 40.
The Sharks were heroic and stoic in defence and were prepared to play the percentages and the conditions. The Chiefs did most of the play, with flanker Sam Cane colossal and the rare rugby highlight in a contest that won’t make the season’s highlights package.
The Sharks were calm in the second half. Credit stand-in captain Pat Lambie for the change of mood within the Sharks' approach. Lambie, in his half-time interview, refused to excuse the ugliness of the opening 40. He was very clear about what the Sharks needed to do in the second half. Keep their cool and back their defence.
Lambie was outstanding in this regard. His opposite Aaron Cruden wasn’t as accurate or intelligent in his approach and more would have been expected of a flyhalf who has excelled in huge Test matches, none more so than the 2011 World Cup final.
The Chiefs' adventurous approach in atrocious conditions was a risk and Lambie made them pay in the 60th minute with his fourth penalty goal to give the Sharks a match-winning 12-11 lead.
The visitors had a chance to force a penalty in the final minute but again they forced passes and created no sustained pressure with ball in hand.
Chiefs captain Messam said the complexity of the match changed because of the 14-versus-13 dynamic but he credited the Sharks with a more intelligent approach in the second half and applauded their ability to defend with discipline.
Lambie praised the discipline in the last 40 minutes but said it was an aspect that had to be maintained throughout 80 minutes.
He smiled because of the win but he certainly was not smiling about what preceded the final whistle.
If the win was one to remember for the Sharks, then the night was one to forget.
Sharks – Penalties: Pat Lambie (4).
Chiefs – Try: Sam Cane. Penalties: Aaron Cruden (2).
Sharks – 15 SP Marais, 14 Odwa Ndungane, 13 JP Pietersen, 12 Frans Steyn, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Pat Lambie, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Ryan Kankowski, 7 Renaldo Bothma, 6 Marcell Coetzee, 5 Marco Wentzel, 4 Mouritz Botha, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis (c), 1Tendai Mtawarira.
Subs: 16 Kyle Cooper, 17 Dale Chadwick, 18 Lourens Adriaanse, 19 Lubabalo Mtyanda, 20 Daniel du Preez, 21 Conrad Hoffman, 22 André Esterhuizen, 23 Waylon Murray.
Chiefs – 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Bryce Heem, 13 Seta Tamanivalu, 12 Andrew Horrell, 11 James Lowe, 10 Aaron Cruden, 9 Brad Weber, 8 Michael Leitch, 7 Sam Cane, 6 Liam Messam (c), 5 Michael Fitzgerald, 4 Matt Symons, 3 Siate Tokolahi, 2 Hika Elliot, 1 Jamie Mackintosh.
Subs: 16 Rhys Marshall, 17 Ben Tameifuna, 18 Mitchell Graham, 19 Michael Allardice, 20 Johan Bardoul, 21 Augustine Pulu, 22 Tom Marshall, 23 Hosea Gear.
Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images