Frans Steyn's brilliant kicking and the power of the Sharks pack was the difference in a hard-fought 31-27 victory over the Highlanders. JON CARDINELLI reports.
The Sharks are through to the semi-finals. Thanks to the cool kicking of Steyn, who slotted two penalties in the dying minutes, they will play the Crusaders in Christchurch next Saturday.
The final scoreline tells a story of the Highlanders' threat, but not of the Sharks' physical dominance. Steyn kicked superbly out of hand, and in front of goal. The Sharks scrum hammered that of the Highlanders, while the hosts' lineout was brilliant despite the loss of No 5 Stephan Lewies shortly before the game.
Had the Sharks been more clinical, they would have won this match by a comfortable margin.
Sharks director of rugby Jake White will feel relieved that they got over the line at the end. While the pack was dominant and Steyn showed his class for the most part in that No 10 channel, the good work was often undone when some abject decision-making and execution gifted the Highlanders with counter-attacking opportunities.
The Sharks will lament their own missed chances. They powered to a 10-0 lead, and may have added seven points more if Jannie du Plessis wasn't guilty of a double movement in his endeavour to score a try. Those seven points may have changed the complexion of the game.
That said, it was the Sharks' poor kicking and tendency to turn the ball over at the ruck that they will regret most. The Highlanders must be lauded for making these opportunities count. In one instant, Steyn failed to clear the ball, and the visitors needed no second invitation to counter-attack. Malakai Fekitoa took advantage of some passive Sharks defence, cutting the line and then fending off some weak would-be tackle attempts en route to the tryline.
While the Highlanders were best when the game was loose, their own flyhalf, Lima Sopoaga, had an outstanding game with the boot. Sopoaga converted every attempt to ensure his team, against every expectation, went to half-time with a 17-13 lead.
Again, it needs to be said just how dominant the Sharks were at the set piece. Jannie du Plessis had the better of his opposite number at the scrums. Ryan Kankowski was in sublime form at the lineout, while Willem Alberts and Marcell Coetzee had big games with ball in hand. Bismarck du Plessis was a factor across all three disciplines.
Steyn contributed with some pressure kicks from hand, but was often let down by the man on his inside. Scrumhalf Cobus Reinach took some poor decisions, and was even reprimanded by his captain, Du Plessis, on more than one occasion for running when he should have kicked.
Reinach also got it wrong early in the second half when the Sharks were camped deep in Highlanders' territory. The Sharks No 9 passed the ball to a well-marked Lwazi Mvovo, who lost possession when he was hit by an advancing defender. To be fair to Mvovo, the pass was never on.
The Sharks fought their way back into the contest, with the scrum pressuring the Highlanders into a mistake on their own tryline. Du Plessis dived onto the loose ball to secure the try, and then had a hand in another score that was ultimately finished by replacement Tonderai Chavhanga.
But another mistake would cost the Sharks. A poor kick by Reinach was collected by the Highlanders, and winger Patrick Osborne offloaded to Phil Burleigh for the score. Sopoaga's conversion propelled the Highlanders into the lead at 27-25.
Reinach was subbed in the 68th minute, but the Sharks continued to spill possession. What was significant, however, was the territory the hosts won in those dying minutes.
The Sharks knocked on twice with the tryline at their mercy, but would earn some reward for their persistence moments later. Steyn kicked a penalty goal to reclaim the lead, and then another to extend it to four points.
The win sees the Sharks advancing to the semi-finals. Their scrumming and lineout play was superb, as was Steyn's line-kicking for the most part.
However, they will need to be more clinical in translating this dominance into points next week if they are going to upset the Crusaders in Christchurch.
Sharks – Tries: Marcell Coetzee, Bismarck du Plessis, Tonderai Chavhanga. Conversions: Frans Steyn (2). Penalties: Steyn (4).
Highlanders – Tries: Malakai Fekitoa, Kane Hames, Phil Burleigh. Conversions: Lima Sopoaga (3). Penalties: Sopoaga (2).
Sharks – 15 SP Marais, 14 S'bura Sithole, 13 JP Pietersen, 12 Paul Jordaan, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Frans Steyn, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Ryan Kankowski, 7 Willem Alberts, 6 Marcell Coetzee, 5 Etienne Oosthuizen, 4 Anton Bresler, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis (c), 1 Thomas du Toit.
Subs: 16 Kyle Cooper, 17 Dale Chadwick, 18 Lourens Adriaanse, 19 Tera Mtembu, 20 Jean Deysel, 21 Chark McLeod, 22 Pat Lambie, 23 Tonderai Chavhanga.
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Richard Buckman, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Phil Burleigh, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu (c), 7 Shane Christie, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Jarrad Hoeata, 3 Chris King, 2 Ged Robinson, 1 Kane Hames.
Subts: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Matias Diaz, 18 JP Koen, 19 Josh Bekhuis, 20 Tom Franklin, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Trent Renata, 23 Gareth Evans.
LEATHERMAN SA PLAYER OF THE MATCH
Bismarck du Plessis was part of a dominant Sharks scrum, and also had a massive game in the loose. Du Plessis scored the Sharks' second try, and offloaded to Tonderai Chavanga to set up the hosts' third.
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