An absorbing match Sharks vs Crusaders

For just over 70 minutes the Sharks suggested that a game of rugby can indeed be won without the ball, particularly in sticky March in Durban when you would rather let the opposition handle the bar of soap, but nobody can argue that in the final analysis, the Crusaders deserved to end the Durbanites’ unbeaten Super Rugby run.

For so long in this absorbing match, the Sharks were a metaphor for the defenders at the Alamo, at Isandlwana even. Heroics indeed, but you had an inkling that they would eventually be overran, but then as the match wound up to its climax, with the home side in an unlikely 14-12 lead, an ever more believing home crowd would have been forgiven in thinking that it might be a Battle of Britain outcome, when the defending Brits somehow held out against the overwhelming odds of the Luftwaffe.

Last week, the unremitting talk from the Sharks was that they had to get more possession than they did the previous week against the Bulls and start asking questions on attack rather than rely on their hugely improved defence to win games.

Dare we mention that this time last year the Crusaders smashed the Sharks 52-10, even thouhg at one stage they had just 12 players on the field in a game in which cards were scattered by the referee like confetti.

We know that defence coach Omar Mouneimne has made a massive difference, and so too has the fact that coach Gary Gold was present for the pre-season this time, and let’s be frank, the Sharks have a significantly improved team spirit this year.

The match was billed as one of the highlights of the weekend, with both sides alluding to a Test match like build up, and for the opening 20 minutes the sides nervously grappled with each other, mostly in the half of the Sharks, but the Crusaders could not force a break.

There was a missed penalty by their flyhalf Richie Mo’unga after ten minutes as a result of that territorial advantage, with the Sharks resolutely defending and fullback Willie Le Roux superb in fielding the high ball and returning it to the Crusaders’ half with precision kicking, and it was only in the 24th minute that the New Zealanders eventually found a hole out wide, after a penalty kick to the corner then saw the ball spun quickly out wide for fullback David Havili to burrow over.

It was relentless trench warfare, with No Man’s Land being around the Sharks’ 10m line. The Sharks could not break out of their half and while the Crusaders patiently traversed the width of the field with their endless possession, they had just that one score for their efforts.

And then in the 35th minute, the Sharks dramatically drew level. Yet another probing Crusaders backline movement had seen an exploratory pass sent out wide but it found the wrong wing, Lwazi Mvovo, instead of Johnny McNicholl, and Mvovo scampered home for a try converted by Joe Pietersen.

That evened the scores up at half time, and the home side would have been delighted considering they had barely had a sniff of the ball, plus Mo’unga missed his second shot at goal just as the hooter sounded.

Mo-unga then missed again three minutes into the second half, and then Mvovo spectacularly capitalised on a dropped backline pass and once more sped to the try-line, with Pietersen converting to give the Sharks a 14-7 lead that nobody could quite comprehend.

And it all became a little more incomprehensible for the Crusaders when, eight minutes into the half, an altercation involving Sharks centre Andre Esterhuizen and McNicholl culminated in fullback Havili throwing himself unnecessarily into the squabble and after a TMO consultation, referee Jaco Peyper binned Havili.

But within minutes, the Crusaders had shrugged off the setback and it was the runaway express train Nemani Nadolo that blasted through JP Pietersen and the cover defence to score at the corner flag.

Mo’unga missed with the conversion, and for about a minute it seemed that it would not matter when McNicholl raced down the openside touchline for what seemed like a try only for the TMO to be called in to rule that he had put an errant stud on the touchline.

Amazingly, the Sharks were 14-12 ahead after 55 minutes when they could well have been substantially behind.

Still the Crusaders pressed on, enjoying their banquet of possession but the black and white wall would not break, and it seemed another unlikely counter-attacking try had been scored, this time by Willie le Roux in the 65th minute, but he was adjudged to have been ahead of kicker Cobus Reinach in his chase for the ball.

And in the 70th minute the Sharks’ luck eventually ran out. A clinical build-up of phase play eventually propelled captain and No 8 Kieran Read over the line, and the converted try put his team 19-14 in front, and this time the Sharks had no get-out-jail-free cards.

Sharks: Tries: Lwazi Mvovo (2). Conversions: Joe Pietersen (2).

Crusaders: Try: David Havili, Nemani Nadolo, Kieran Read. Conversions: Richie Mo’unga, Nadolo.

SHARKS (7) 14


by Mike Greenaway at Kings Park

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