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
It was a relief to see the player return to
duty with no immediately apparent after-effects, following the obligatory
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
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
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.
our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing