Sharks’ backs steal the show

Brilliant finishing by the Sharks' backs offset a poor performance by the home pack in Durban, writes JON CARDINELLI.

The result was expected, the manner of performance less so. The Sharks went into this clash as favourites to win, and win convincingly via a powerful forward display. With six Springboks in the starting pack, they were expected to make an early statement and put their less-fancied opponents away.

The Bulls surprised with their application and tenacity. They were excellent at the breakdown and nigh on unstoppable from the rolling maul.

If not for a series of unforced errors, they may have scored a couple ofl tries in the first half. That would have made for a very different contest in the second stanza, and may have led to a big upset in the context of the South African conference.

Despite losing the forward exchanges, the Sharks still went to half-time with a comfortable 23-9 lead. The Bulls failed to convert their possession and territory into points, while the Sharks made their few chances count.

And when the Sharks did score, they scored in style. The Bulls will lament their defensive lapses, but full credit should go to the Sharks' backs for their vision and execution.

Cobus Reinach was a threat from the base of the ruck, and also applied plenty of pressure on defence. Pat Lambie succeeded in taking the ball to the gain line, and it was a flat, short ball that put Lwazi Mvovo through a midfield hole.

If the Sharks pack can improve to provide a more consistent platform for the backs, then this team is going to be even more dangerous

Mvovo drew the last man and then made the final pass to Paul Jordaan. It was a brilliant piece of rugby, from the linebreak to the finish.

Reinach’s try was dubious, given that Anton Bresler had appeared to knock on the ball from the lineout. But there was no doubt regarding the Sharks’ third try, when Frans Steyn identified some space behind the Bulls defence and chipped the ball for Odwa Ndugane to chase. The veteran winger had the pace and the skill to finish to put the Sharks firmly in control of the game.

It was fitting that the Sharks scored the bonus-point try in the final play, and that Lambie was the man to cross the line.

The innovation and execution of the Sharks' backs will please director of rugby Jake White, especially at this early stage of the season. If the Sharks pack can improve to provide a more consistent platform for the backs, then this team is going to be even more dangerous.

The Sharks forwards improved as the game progressed, but the fact remains that the Bulls dominated in the first 40 and would have led on the scoreboard had they taken their chances.

They weren’t helped by the decision-making of their halfbacks. Francois Hougaard had a shocker in that crucial No 9 position, with his box kicks proving especially poor. Flyhalf Louis Fouché also battled to settle, and his performance showed exactly why the Pretoria franchise will miss Morné Steyn.

The game was scrappy at times, but a lot better than the frantic fixture played in Bloemfontein earlier in the day.

The Lions prevailed thanks to the cool goal-kicking of Marnitz Boshoff, but their loose pattern of play suggested that not much has changed at the franchise. They will be punished accordingly by the better teams.

The Cheetahs missed a great opportunity to start their campaign with a big win. They failed to use their pack to subdue the Lions, and failed to play the game in the right areas of the field. To make matters worse, their goal-kickers were unacceptably wayward. Elgar Watts should have slotted that penalty goal in the dying moments.

All of these factors contributed to a humiliating loss. Home defeats are unacceptable for teams aspiring to a play-off place, and a loss to the Lions in that fashion suggests the Cheetahs will not challenge for the title in 2014.

Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images

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Jon Cardinelli