An epic weekend of SuperRugby action ended with the Sharks, Cheetahs and Southern Kings emerging as the big winners, furnishing themselves with the invaluable characteristic of being able to get the job done against the odds.
The improvement of the Sharks in their second half against the Crusaders was remarkable and their 21-17 victory looked implausible at half-time when the home side were creaking like one of the decrepit ships in the harbour not far away.
The Cheetahs showed that they now obviously have the belief to contend for the crown of Conference champions as they snuck home 26-24 against the Stormers, increasing the misery of one of the pre-tournament favourites.
And although the Southern Kings didn’t win, their 28-28 draw with the log-leading Brumbies in Canberra was one of the most unexpected results in the history of the competition.
The Sharks now lead the South African Conference by just three points from the Cheetahs, but have just come off the bye, with the Bulls and Stormers six and nine points behind respectively.
The break didn’t seem to have done the Sharks any good in the first half, though, as the Crusaders dominated the possession and territory stats and stressed the home side’s defence by attacking both close to the fringes and out wide.
The finishing of the Crusaders was poor, however, and the 11-9 half-time lead did not reflect the dominance they had enjoyed.
It was the unerring boot of flyhalf Pat Lambie that had kept the Sharks in the game with three penalties and, with their game undergoing a dramatic refurbishment after the break, he was able to kick four from four in the second half and give the Natalians just their third win in 17 matches against the Crusaders.
The boot of opposite number Tyler Bleyendaal was less precise, even though the youngster had kicked superbly out of hand in the first half. The 22-year-old stand-in for Dan Carter missed a potential five points in the first half and another six in the second, while he was no longer the master of the territorial game either. Even wing JP Pietersen was more effective with the boot after the break.
The scoreboard was still in the Crusaders’ favour, however, heading into the final 10 minutes at 17-15. It was the Sharks scrum, which was uncertain in the first half, which turned the contest as a tremendous shove earned Lambie a penalty to give the home side an 18-17 lead.
The clincher came with four minutes remaining and was due to an inconsequential ruck infringement by the Crusaders on their own ball.
But the Sharks were deserving winners, keeping the ball for longer in the second half, and their forwards producing a superb effort spearheaded by Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira and the highly impressive young lock, Pieter-Steph du Toit.
Burton Francis kicked an angled penalty after the hooter to also steal the plaudits in the Cheetahs’ 26-24 win over the Stormers.
Having earned a reputation in previous seasons for always losing the close games, the Cheetahs showed remarkable composure and belief to end a six-year losing streak against the Stormers and to avenge two narrow defeats against them last year. It was also their fifth successive win, to mark their best ever run in SuperRugby.
Replacement wing Damian de Allende’s failure to remove his hands from a ruck as the Stormers tried to repel wave-after-wave of desperate last attack by the Cheetahs led to the penalty, which was contentious. But it was fair that the last piece of fortune should fall the Cheetahs’ way because referee Stuart Berry had earlier seen fit to award the Stormers a try despite accidental offsides in the build-up and a crucial 71st-minute ruck penalty when Heinrich Brüssow looked hard done by and which infuriated the hosts.
The crowning of Francis as hero only came after a shaky last 10 minutes when he had missed a relatively straightforward penalty and a drop goal (having slotted a brilliant one on the hour mark) and had kicked the ball dead to concede a scrum in the final minute, inside the Cheetahs’ half.
But the massive scrum that followed, earning the Cheetahs a tighthead, was the obvious match-winning moment, allowing the home side to launch those last forays that earned Francis his shot at glory.
The play of the Stormers was inconsistent, ranging from the sublime to the lethargic and the number of errors they made meant the Cheetahs were always in the game.
Having competed so well in the opening exchanges, the Cheetahs were in a state of some shock at half-time as the Stormers scored two tries in the last five minutes of the first half to open up a 15-7 lead.
The second try should never have been, though, as Gio Aplon, having re-gathered his own chip over the defence, then grubbered into one of his own players standing in front of him, which should have been called for offsides. It was during a typically helter-skelter, scrappy period of play, but the information would have been readily available to referee Berry had he referred it, like so many other decisions, to the TMO. Then again, perhaps the Cheetahs players should have put up more of a fuss.
But the Cheetahs struck early in the second half, Elton Jantjies being penalised for a judo-throw tackle and replacement scrumhalf Sarel Pretorius then snapping up an attempted box-kick practically off opposite number Nic Groom’s boot and racing away from 45m for a superb try.
It came at a cost, though, as Pretorius strained his hamstring during his sprint, forcing replacement wing Ryno Benjamin to play scrumhalf. Fortunately he fitted the bill as he has played there before for the Springbok Sevens team, and it characterised the Cheetahs’ determination to succeed whatever the obstacles, which included a dysfunctional lineout.
The Stormers are not the only bemused pre-tournament favourites at the moment, though, with the Brumbies wondering how on earth they couldn’t beat the Kings in Canberra.
The answers lie in how magnificently the Kings defended, but also in how the Brumbies chose to attack the tournament newcomers.
Having started brightly, using their big strike runners to narrow the defence and then going wide as they built an early 13-0 lead, the Brumbies declined to use the width of the field in the second half.
It played into the hands of the phenomenal Kings defence at close quarters, with flank Wimpie van der Walt leading the way with an extraordinary 19 tackles, missing none, to win the man of the match award for one of the most ferocious displays seen this season.
It was Van der Walt and excellent fellow loose forward Cornell du Preez who had carried the ball strongly to allow prop Schalk Ferreira the momentum to score the Kings’ opening try in the 22nd minute.
The Kings lost a couple of lineouts and hardly ever retained possession from the kick-offs to make life even harder for themselves, but Van der Walt scored from a brilliant rolling maul to keep the gap to just 14-19 at half-time.
For whatever reason, Jake White’s Brumbies have been unable to give of their best for two weekends now and their lack of focus saw the Kings claim the lead just six minutes into the second half as a dropped pass allowed Sergeal Petersen to hack the ball away and give chase. The visitors won the turnover, scrumhalf Nicolas Vergallo holding the ball up well before providing Du Preez with the scoring pass.
It was clear the Brumbies were now in danger of a shock defeat, even though the Kings’ lead only lasted four minutes as Vergallo’s clearance from the kick-off was charged down, leading to a penalty.
But it was the Kings, learning about rugby at this level with prodigious speed, who had all the answers in the closing minutes. Even a harsh yellow card to Ferreira, which contributed to two Brumbies’ scrum penalties, and a missed penalty in front of the poles by George Whitehead failed to derail them and the final minute saw them hard on attack.
The Brumbies conceded a string of penalties as the clock ticked down, and the hooter had long gone when the admirable Bandise Maku made good ground after tapping the penalty and the tenacious Du Preez muscled his way through the tackles of four Australians to clinch the most heroic of draws.