Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Three pretty lacklustre performances on the trot have nevertheless yielded an acceptable tally of two victories from them.AS IT HAPPENED: Rebels v Sharks
But with the next trio of fixtures immeasurably more demanding than the Cheetahs, Highlanders (both at home) and Rebels, the time has come for the Sharks to necessarily shift up a gear or two as the Brumbies, Crusaders and Blues successively now await them in their respective Super Rugby strongholds.
All that will matter to staunch Sharks enthusiasts for the moment is that they opened their overseas leg on Friday with a scrappy, grimly-fought 22-16 win over the reasonably motley Melbourne outfit – indeed, all of South Africa will rejoice that the country mercifully snaffled a first triumph in Australasia in 13 attempts this season.
The four points banked saw the Durban-based team extend their lead over the Brumbies on the overall log to five points, although the Aussie side had a weekend game in hand away to the Crusaders – a potential Saturday thriller kicking off at 06:35 SA time.
A really big, full-house victory for the Brumbies in Christchurch seems relatively unlikely against the seven-time champions, who are in the playoffs hunt themselves, so the Sharks should at least enter week two of their tour still ahead of the pack.
Nevertheless, they got a reminder of how hard the next three games will be collectively for them because even the inconsistent Blues, their last opponents abroad on May 23, have worked themselves into finals series contention and thumped the once-mighty Reds 44-14 in Auckland just ahead of the Sharks’ engagement at AAMI Park.
Jake White and his charges will be under no illusions: their game remains several notches too sterile and error-prone at present and the one-try-apiece edging out of the Rebels only underlined that.
Indeed, in the minutes leading up to and then after the siren, the Sharks were hanging on grimly – just imagine how damaging to their maiden title prospects a late, converted try by the Rebels would have been?
For much of the game, you sensed that the mental energy and precision of the visitors was still not where it should be ... and speaking of energy, the sight of one of their most consistently dynamic loose forwards in 2014, Marcell Coetzee, leaving the park early in the first half with what appeared to be an arm or shoulder injury hardly aids their quest to find new zest in time for the Brumbies’ challenge in the next round.
Some consolation for the Sharks is that they have a welcome, eight-day turnaround to the Canberra showdown.
Also a blessing was that the visitors could replace Coetzee with a player of known high pedigree in Keegan Daniel, who made some important contributions of his own to the ground-out success.
That said, the standout forward on the night for the winning side was uncompromising blindside flank Jean Deysel, who got through a mountain of work on defence with thunderous hits: his intensity was a blessing because several team-mates were guilty at times of indecisive first-time tackling.
Another area where the Sharks inexplicably failed to impress was at scrum-time, where an unsung Rebels pack mostly got a stronger shunt going – and that despite an all-Springbok front row in action for the visitors.
In the Sharks’ defence, and despite another “six out of 10” showing from them at best, there was some highly questionable officiating from Australian Andrew Lees, including an early decision not to award a penalty try after livewire Lwazi Mvovo was denied a very likely touchdown by a blatant slap-away of the ball from a desperate Rebels defender.
Even the television match official seemed to be desperately wishing to give Lees a corrective hint, as he insisted on showing repeats and further angles of the incident after the referee had intimated that he was only going to award a staple penalty and take no carding action against the offender.
Had the Sharks got that swift head of steam, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that they might have downed these opponents rather more emphatically than eventually was the case.
Still, a win is a win, as they say, and the Sharks move on in reasonably good heart ...*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing