Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - When you are missing such unflinching competitors as Bismarck du Plessis, Willem Alberts, Jean Deysel and Butch James, it is almost inevitable that there will be pockets of play or even whole matches where you will be really under the cosh from similarly steely opponents.
The Sharks are currently plying their Super Rugby 2013 trade minus all of those known “hardebaarde”, and yet they remain leaders of the South African conference – they cannot be overhauled in what is left of this weekend’s activity – and within striking distance of the slightly faltering Brumbies, who occupy second position (one of the two guaranteed home semi-final berths at the end of ordinary season, remember) overall.
This healthy situation, even as they are yet to find fullest collective lustre, is down in no small measure to the talent, desire and courage of several of their younger generation of players.
Such greenhorns stood tall – yes, including two or three who are not especially vertically blessed – again as the Sharks made it five wins from six outings by seeing off the ever-polished Crusaders 21-17 at Kings Park on Friday.
It was touch and go for major periods of the enthralling contest, and the touring side very emphatically ruled the roost in the first half, where they caught Keegan Daniel’s men a little out of puff and defensively stretched with their frenzied, sometimes delightful commitment to ball-in-hand attack, relentless phase-building and forceful bossing of primary possession.
The saving grace for the Sharks, when you re-assess the fixture as a whole, was that they somehow restricted the Crusaders’ interval lead to a mere 11-9, which gave them tantalising scope for a fight-back if coach John Plumtree was going to be able to put a rocket up various posteriors during the break.
Clearly any urgency in his voice must have hit required spots because the hosts effectively turned the tables in the second half, suddenly getting far greater traction over or toward the advantage line and forcing the ‘Saders into the sort of fatiguing tackling and scrambling they had had to do earlier themselves.
No doubt mindful of just how much energy the New Zealanders had been required to muster in their fine win over the Stormers at Newlands less than a week before, the Sharks were only turning the screws more clinically in the key closing minutes when George Whitelock and company finally ran out of steam.
And so central to this come-from-behind triumph was the “bouncebackability”, if you like, of some reasonably inexperienced Sharks players who had some humbling moments before the break.
The first who comes to mind is Paul Jordaan, if only because the initially hapless outside centre was given bouts of glaring revolving-door treatment from Robbie Fruean, the freight train in midfield for the Crusaders -- some 10cm taller and a gaping 22kg heavier at 110kg if the printed tale of the tape is to be believed.
It was hard to avoid minor flashbacks to the days of Lomu v Catt as Fruean ran straight and hard at the former Baby Bok, either knocking him to the turf with contempt or simply brushing off his passing attempt at a tackle.
But as the game progressed, Jordaan only confirmed his unwillingness to be cowed, being a leading figure in the Sharks’ steadily improving line-speed and co-ordination on defence: there were even little tastes of his own medicine for Fruean as people like Marcell Coetzee, who almost seems a Durban “veteran” but is still 21, took some glee in taking him spiritedly to ground.
Another shining light was Pieter-Steph du Toit in the second row, who also experienced some angst initially as the Crusaders’ tight five established a temporary iron grip but got stuck in with mounting relish as the momentum swung.
The blond 20-year-old carried balls up tirelessly, cleaned out or shielded possession at rucks with equal purpose, and certainly helped enhance a feeling among some pundits that the future of Springbok lock play possibly lies in a mouth-watering alliance of Du Toit and Eben Etzebeth.
He may be a little older at 24 than some of the other prospects around him, but hooker Kyle Cooper’s opportunities have hitherto been limited by Bismarck du Plessis whenever the world-class No 2 has been fit for combat – he is getting a bit of a run in the starting XV now and grabbing the chance with both hands.
Officially branded the player of the match, Cooper put his body on the line right up until he was subbed for Craig Burden for the last scrum and if Du Plessis hinted during a mid-game impromptu television interview that his comeback may yet be several weeks away, at least the former’s increasing confidence and competence is a comfort to the Sharks.
They were also well served by their young halfback combination of Cobus Reinach and Pat Lambie; the latter may not have been notably authoritative in general play on the night but his place-kicking was admirably unfailing and represented a vital difference between the sides on the scoreboard.
It is a case of “no rest for the wicked” for the victorious Sharks, as they must regroup with some speed for the challenge of their second derby of the year with big coastal rivals the Stormers at Newlands next Saturday ...*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing