The Sharks hung on for a 15-14 win against a determined 14-man Highlanders side in Dunedin on Friday. JON CARDINELLI reports.
The Sharks should be pleased with the result. They should be thrilled with the quality of their defence as well as the accuracy of their goal-kicker, Garth April.
In a tight contest, April’s five-from-five performance was the difference. Indeed, April’s more experienced opposite number will lament a wayward showing. Lima Sopoaga missed three shots from the tee, as well as a late drop goal attempt.
And yet there was one particular incident in the first half that influenced the rest of the contest. The odds on a home victory lengthened when Jason Emery was red-carded inside the first quarter. The offence reduced the Highlanders to 14 men for the next 68 minutes.
TV replays confirmed that Emery's offence was more reckless than malicious. The centre and Sharks fullback Willie le Roux converged towards a high ball. Le Roux got there first to win possession, while Emery only managed to jump into his opponent.
The challenge saw Le Roux losing his balance and landing heavily on his head and shoulders. Incredibly, the Springbok fullback escaped serious injury.
Emery, however, did not escape serious sanction. Referee Ben O'Keefe brandished a red card, and from there, the complexion of the game changed.
The Highlanders competed gamely for the rest of the first half. They had the chance to move into the lead, but Sopoaga missed two shots at goal.
The Sharks failed to capitalise on the one-man advantage. April and Le Roux were often guilty of kicking the ball dead, and thus handing the Highlanders possession and territory. The Sharks, as a unit, coughed up too much ball.
Their defence, however, was excellent.
Stephan Lewies was shown a yellow card at the end of the first half for a cynical offence at the breakdown. The Highlanders were encouraged by the fact that 14 would play 14 for the next 10 minutes. They attempted to push for a try at the end of the half, but were denied by some fierce Sharks defence.
The Highlanders won a series of penalties during that period. And yet they spurned the opportunity to take three points. The lack of respect for the Sharks defence saw the Highlanders trailing 6-3 at the break.
April extended the Sharks' lead right after half-time. But the visitors, through JP Pietersen, lost their discipline deep in their own territory in the 53rd minute.
They conceded another yellow card and penalty. On this occasion, the Highlanders showed the Sharks defence some respect, and Sopoaga went for the three points.
On the hour, the hosts finally breached the Sharks defence. Aaron Smith, under immense pressure by the Sharks forwards, managed to get a pass away to Matt Faddes on the right wing. Faddes took the ball on his ankles, avoided a tackle attempt by Le Roux, and dotted down in the corner.
The Sharks showed their character in the final quarter. Their forwards continued to dominate the breakdowns and collisions.
Jean Deysel, who had replaced Phillip van der Walt early in the first half, was influential in these areas. The Sharks made their way downfield. While they battled to find a way through a 14-man Highlanders defence, they did enough to milk a penalty. April made no mistake in slotting the attempt between the uprights.
With four minutes remaining, the Highlanders attempted to snatch an unlikely win. The Sharks battled to control the ball from the kickoff, and were fortunate that the Highlanders knocked on in a subsequent phase. Sopoaga missed a drop goal attempt. A forward pass by a Highlanders player brought an end to proceedings.
The result is a big one for the Sharks. It marks their first win in five matches, and an end to a three-game losing streak.
Highlanders – Try: Matt Faddes. Penalties: Lima Sopoaga (3).
Sharks – Penalties: Garth April (5).
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Matt Faddes, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Jason Emery, 11 Jack Wilson, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Liam Squire, 7 Shane Christie (c), 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Tom Franklin, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Ash Dixon, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Subs: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Craig Millar, 18 Ross Geldenhuys, 19 Alex Ainley, 20 Dan Pryor, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Hayden Parker, 23 Patrick Osborne.
Sharks – 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Odwa Ndungane, 13 JP Pietersen, 12 André Esterhuizen, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Garth April, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Philip van der Walt, 7 Jean-Luc du Preez, 6 Keegan Daniel, 5 Stephan Lewies, 4 Etienne Oosthuizen, 3 Coenie Oosthuizen, 2 Franco Marais, 1 Beast Mtawarira (c).
Subs: 16 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 17 Thomas du Toit, 18 Lourens Adriaanse, 19 Hyron Andrews, 20 Jean Deysel, 21 Michael Claassens, 22 Joe Pietersen, 23 S'bura Sithole.
Photo: Rob Jefferies/Getty Images