Sharks strangle Blues

Brilliant defence earned the Sharks a massive 29-23 victory over the Blues on Friday. JON CARDINELLI reports.

You have to admire the Sharks for their determination and tenacity. Coming off a taxing encounter against the Crusaders just six days earlier, there was always a danger that they wouldn't be up for the final clash of a four-game tour. And yet, somehow the Sharks managed to fire, displaying the necessary physicality and mental strength to outlast the Blues.

The Sharks dominated the first half, with their forwards getting the better of the Blues' heavies at the collisions and breakdowns. The visitors won some crucial turnovers during this period and Frans Steyn's cool goal-kicking ensured they went to the break with a commanding 16-6 lead.

It was in the second stanza, however, where their intensity and resolve was put to the test. They conceded two yellow cards and were forced to defend for large periods.

Prop Jannie du Plessis was the first to be sin-binned in the 43rd minute. While the Sharks did concede points during Du Plessis' absence, they managed to keep the Blues relatively honest. They didn't dominate the territorial battle as they had in the first stanza, but continued to effect some timely breakdown turnovers that stifled the Blues' momentum.

A cynical infringement by Steyn in the 62nd minute left the Sharks shorthanded once again and the Blues scored a try through winger Tevita Li shortly after.

The final pass to Li looked to be forward, but between them, the referee and TMO decided that the try would stand. It set up a dramatic final quarter with the Blues trailing a depleted Sharks side by just six points.

The Sharks managed to hold on, and then play themselves into opposition territory. Fullback SP Marais slotted a penalty to hand the visitors a nine-point cushion, although the Blues would reply soon after with a penalty of their own.

The Blues continued to attack in the dying minutes, but were repeatedly repelled by the Sharks defence. It was during this period where the Sharks again showed why they are favourites to win the title.

The victory is the Sharks' third on tour, and their second in New Zealand this season. They made a statement in Christchurch last week with a historic win, and have managed to make another with a gutsy effort in Albany.

Blues – Tries: Luke Braid, Tevita Li. Conversions: Simon Hickey, Ihania West. Penalties: Hickey (2), West.
Sharks – Tries: Bismarck du Plessis, Cobus Reinach. Conversions: Frans Steyn (2). Penalties: Steyn (3), SP Marais. Drop goal: Steyn.

Blues  – 15 Lolagi Visinia, 14 Frank Halai, 13 Pita Ahki, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Simon Hickey, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Jerome Kaino, 7 Luke Braid (c), 6 Peter Saili, 5 Tom Donnelly, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 Keven Mealamu, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Subs: 16 James Parsons, 17 Sam Prattley, 18 Angus Ta'avao, 19 Hayden Triggs, 20 Steven Luatua, 21 Jamison Gibson-Park, 22 Ihaia West, 23 Albert Nikoro.

Sharks – 15 SP Marais, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 S’bura Sithole, 12 Paul Jordaan, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Francois Steyn, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Willem Alberts, 7 Tera Mtembu, 6 Jacques Botes, 5 Stephan Lewies, 4 Etienne Oosthuizen, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, (c) 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Subs: 16 Kyle Cooper, 17 Dale Chadwick, 18 Lourens Adriaanse, 19 Ryan Kankowski, 20 Keegan Daniel, 21 Charl McLeod, 22 Tim Swiel, 23 Heimar Williams.

Bismarck du Plessis had a massive game, both as a leader and player. It was evident throughout that the Sharks' forwards followed Du Plessis' abrasive defensive example.

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Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images

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Jon Cardinelli