Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – The Sharks hung in heroically, albeit in a pig’s ear of a game, for a victory at Kings Park on Saturday that kept their playoffs challenge reasonably buoyant ... but no thanks at all to the “efforts” of their captain, Bismarck du Plessis.
WATCH: BISMARCK KICKS OPPONENT IN THE FACE
By somehow pipping the Chiefs 12-11, the Durban outfit earned a precious third win in six Super Rugby attempts this year to stay in reasonable contention for the playoffs: had they instead lost again their chances would have receded greatly, especially as their ever-testing four-match overseas challenge still lies somewhere on the horizon.
But the error-strewn, sometimes spiteful match in weather to match that tone will be remembered much more than anything for the lion’s share of it being a “13 plays 14” affair after the rare red-carding in the first period of three players, including the hosts’ hooker Du Plessis and inside centre Frans Steyn.
Under the circumstances, the especially depleted Sharks scrambled valiantly – you shouldn’t see Springbok utility back JP Pietersen packing down again so often at flank for scrums any time soon – to nick this low-quality, stop-start fixture.
The Chiefs really should have won after being the only side to play any semblance of rugby as we would like to know it, but they made key handling or option-taking errors to let the increasingly knackered but staunchly unyielding Sharks off the hook.
Oh, and how Aaron Cruden fluffed a late, likely game-swaying dropped goal attempt under little pressure from close range, only he will know.
But for the absolute folly of Du Plessis, however, the hosts might well have enjoyed a considerably less exhausting push for victory, as the Chiefs had surrendered their own hooker and Kung Fu black belt Hika Elliot for the duration as early as the 15th minute after a cynical shoulder charge to the back of Tendai Mtawarira’s head.
That should have been the big-bonus ticket for the Sharks to calm things down and take a progressive grip ... but instead only three minutes later, and in far-too-good view of the officials, their No 2 and supposed leader also suffered an unforgivable red-mist moment as he rammed his studs, off the ground, into the face of Chiefs No 8 Michael Leitch.
It was an offence that so nearly cost the Sharks a vital game, and forced the remaining home troops into a murderous work-rate for three quarters of the contest that could come home to roost from a fatigue point of view in the next couple of weeks when they entertain further overseas foes in the Force (that one at least still looks well winnable) and Crusaders.
Steyn’s similar passage to an early shower, following an ill-judged tip tackle before the break, only added to the burden on the home side, and Sharks fans will nervously await whatever further sanction comes the way of both seasoned internationals.
Television commentator Owen Nkumane made an understatement of some magnitude when he suggested: “Gary Gold (the Sharks’ director of rugby) must be disappointed with the discipline of his senior players.”
Livid, more like it ... at least you would hope or expect so.
The Du Plessis incident is also bound to rekindle the debate around the suitability of the combative, sometimes volatile 30-year-old to captaincy.
As much as his short-fuse problem appears not to have eased a great deal with age, it has also been some time since he played with the constructive assertiveness and accuracy that was a hallmark of his game for so long at both Super Rugby and Springbok level.
Appointed as skipper last year when Jake White still pulled the off-field strings at the Shark Tank, the now 70-cap Bok went on to have one of his most mediocre Test seasons by his massive standards, as he spent more time than usual as a substitute to Adriaan Strauss – in five games – than he had previously been used to in periods when he was quite rightfully advocated as the planet’s best hooker and thus his own country’s undisputed top dog in the berth.
He has no lack of “previous” in the disciplinary department, of course, and this season has already walked a bit of a tightrope for staying inside the laws; a spat with long-time Bok colleague Victor Matfield in the derby against the Bulls at Loftus comes to mind.
As if to compound things for Du Plessis on his forgettable day, when Pat Lambie took charge of the Sharks for the remainder of the match against the Chiefs, the flyhalf was commended by popular pundit and former Bok coach Nick Mallett for looking “calm and collected” in charge.
It is quite likely that Lambie, increasingly authoritative in his pivot berth as well, will get further opportunities in the short-term to demonstrate his own credentials at the Sharks’ helm ...
Next round of Super Rugby matches (home teams first, all kickoffs SA time):
Friday: Hurricanes v Rebels, 08:35; Reds v Lions, 11:00. Saturday: Chiefs v Cheetahs, 05:30; Highlanders v Stormers, 08:35; Waratahs v Blues, 10:40; Sharks v Force, 17:05; Bulls v Crusaders, 19:10. Bye: Brumbies
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