Sharks ‘supersubs’ swayed it

    2016-04-22 16:50

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town – The Sharks will be mature enough to realise that when they get down to their next training session on tour, there are lingering flaws aplenty to iron out if they still consider themselves possible Vodacom Super Rugby title material this year.

    Until then, however, Gary Gold’s charges deserve nothing less than to bask in the rightful, bottle-clinking glory that inevitably accompanies any victory against a highly-touted New Zealand side on their own turf.

    All that matters to them for the remainder of the weekend will be the blissful final scoreboard memory against the defending champions in Dunedin on Friday: Highlanders 14 Sharks 15.

    Though industrial and laboured against an outfit comprising 14 men for all but 13 minutes of the contest, it was a massively important outcome for the tourists, snapping a painful streak in which they had not won in four attempts.

    It also means that -- at least for a while longer and against the backdrop of their wholly unenviable itinerary this year -- they stay in acceptable touch with the log-leading Lions in Africa Conference 2 and keep a sound enough quarter-finals sniff.

    The contest was dramatic and incident-filled rather than one of any high quality, perhaps a reflection in itself of how crucial it was to both sides: the Highlanders may be riding a little higher than the Sharks overall even after this outcome, but they are in the most murderous conference of the lot and Friday’s setback is a significant blow to their title retention hopes.

    That the Sharks failed to register a single try against understaffed foes and relied instead on the praiseworthy accuracy off the tee of first-time starter at flyhalf Garth April, tells you that their attacking game remains, to put it quite politely, a work in progress.

    But simply restoring winning ways can be a powerful tonic in the quest to remedy that, and a bruised, tired dressing room will also have realised anew that a bit of ticker, energy and unceasing work ethic can win you close ‘uns at times.

    Nor can the Highlanders argue with any huge conviction that they were somehow “robbed”; occasionally they were their own worst enemies with the inaccuracy or plain butterfingered reception of passes.

    Yes, they may debate long and hard in Otago the merits or demerits of midfielder Jason Emery getting a costly red card for his ill-timed aerial challenge on Willie le Roux that saw the Springbok fullback fall gruesomely on his head and neck with the remainder of his bodyweight still above him.

    Outright malice was almost certainly absent in the flashpoint, but at the same time it would not have been absurdly dramatic to suggest that Le Roux’s violent tumble had the potential to be a career-ender.

    It was a relief to see the player return to duty with no immediately apparent after-effects, following the obligatory concussion-check protocols.

    To his credit, TV commentator and former All Black scrumhalf Justin Marshall pointed out: “You can’t get more dangerous than that … I have to wholeheartedly agree with (referee) Ben O’Keefe’s decision.”

    Of course playing against 14 men for a prolonged period can be a surprisingly hazardous exercise for the stronger-complement team: different organisational dynamics come into play, and you have to deal with the very expectation that you will almost automatically go on to win.

    Adversity more often than not brings out the best in the inconvenienced side, too: every man knows he has to put in an even bigger shift, and the Highlanders largely did that.

    Still, it is not as though everything was plain sailing on the personnel front for the Sharks: they lost two players to stretches in the sin bin, Stephan Lewies and JP Pietersen, and a further two to injury in the first half.

    On that specific subject, the fact that they could infuse the highly experienced, 33-year-old Michael Claassens at scrumhalf for Cobus Reinach – taken out in an illegal shoulder charge by Lima Sopoaga after only some six minutes – and another crusty old pro in Jean Deysel for Philip van der Walt, meant they crucially lost nothing in competence.

    Indeed, Deysel hardly looked like someone short of a recent gallop – he is only just back from the crocked list himself – as he threw himself into tackles and general scrambling and also “bounced” one or two would-be defenders as he made morale-boosting metres with ball in hand.

    Towards the end, deputy tighthead prop Lourens Adriaanse was also responsible for some precious, stable right shoulders as the Sharks scrum was increasingly tested in the desperate, late Highlanders rally.

    It was a triumph of grim tenacity throughout the Sharks ranks … but a handful of their subs warranted equal status, and then some, in the post-game celebrations.

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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