Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - Demonic industry over razzle-dazzle.
At least for the foreseeable future, that remains the most feasible way for South African rugby outfits to down or at least emulate (the latter was the Sharks’ honourable achievement at AMI Stadium on Friday) New Zealand sides on their own terrain.
It required a try after the siren for the mighty Crusaders, the defending champions and 2019 log-leaders, to snatch a pulsating 21-21 draw against the tourists from KwaZulu-Natal in their Super Rugby encounter.
Lucky ‘Saders? Well, a little … though in registering all of the game’s only three tries, they probably deserved something out of it, in the final analysis.
We also mustn’t get too carried away by the merits of this stalemate from the underdogs, given that the Crusaders rested a handful of their core All Blacks.
READ: Du Preez praises dominant Sharks defence
That said, they also sent out more than enough quality personnel, and at least two of the dot-downs came after they’d had to hammer away for several minutes in unusually crude (for them) fashion; the scores weren’t ever going to be candidates for a sexy-tries-of-the-season video package.
The Sharks, murderously physical and collectively amped on defence, turned this clash into much more of a monster truck derby that than -- and it so nearly brought what would have been a second momentous win for them in supposedly “Fortress Christchurch” over the space of only five years.
There were shades of the way the Springboks famously upset the All Blacks in Wellington last year in the unapologetically earthy way they went about their business, except that on that occasion Rassie Erasmus’s national charges had also stung their hosts with some sparkling, often fleet-footed counter-attacking tries.
The Sharks of the last few weeks have been anything but fluid, dynamic or even notably desirous with ball in hand, and it is easy to lambast them and their head coach Robert du Preez on that front when they are irksomely botching home matches to the Jaguares and Reds in quick succession and too often looking as if their arms are tied together.
But when they show such grim, unyielding commitment to knocking back enemy carriers, scrambling to get brawny specimens over the ball at breakdowns and generally getting their elbows dirty with enormous zeal, it is difficult to suggest with any conviction that the publicly dour Du Preez may have “lost” his dressing room.
The Crusaders didn’t like the medicine rammed down their throats a whole heap, either, as they were forced into a catalogue of errors they might not make against more like-minded foes, and seldom able to stretch play or crank up the tempo in the manner they treasure.
Those consistent, debilitating gremlins also meant that Curwin Bosch’s right boot, capable of great efficiency off the tee from both short and much longer ranges, was able to account for all of the Sharks’ points; at least for the next few agreeable days in the travelling camp, they will not care a jot that they failed to cross the whitewash themselves against the title-holders.
Although you have be incredibly wary of dissing the Lions – tournament runners-up for three years running, which takes some doing in the present, uncertain SA rugby climate – it was highly educative to note the contrasts in both style and levels of muscle between the Sharks team who ground out this fine result and the Highveld unit who were imperiously dismantled by the same foes 36-10 at the identical venue just a week ago.
Especially with gargantuan Bok hooker Malcolm Marx missing the action last Friday, the Lions pack on that occasion was infinitely less equipped to out-grunt the ‘Saders at the coalface.
Fielding two small, whippet-like loose forwards in Kwagga Smith and Marnus Schoeman (they come into their own in the right circumstances, to be fair), the Lions stuck by and large to their broadly more progressive, higher-pace template … and a fat lot of good it did them, to be brutally honest.
For total pack tonnage, the Sharks eight who dished out plenty of bruises here must have outdone that particular Lions unit in Christchurch by many, many kilograms, especially when you consider their all-big-men loose trio, the return of Ruan Botha to the second row and a prop alliance of Thomas du Toit and Coenie Oosthuizen weighing some 265kg just between them.
It also helped that there are plenty of Sharks back-liners who don’t get knocked backwards easily – remember that the Lions have surrendered this season one of their more solid prior specimens in Rohan Janse van Rensburg – and that was amply demonstrated late in the game when right wing S’bu Nkosi, who clearly doesn’t shirk his gym work, prevented a try by unceremoniously, vitally bundling a flying ‘Saders carrier into touch at the flag.
“We love touring,” Sharks captain Louis Schreuder quite gleefully reminded in his immediate post-match TV interview at pitch side.
His troops are unbeaten after two Australasian matches … and perhaps they aren’t done yet, as the Chiefs will certainly be considered targetable for plucking in the closing fixture in Hamilton next Saturday.
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