The Cell C Sharks ended the eight-match winning home run of the Highlanders, the defending Vodacom SuperRugby champions, with a gutsy 15-14 win in Dunedin on Friday, in a display that proves there is obviously great character and potential in their side.
The Sharks were helped by the 13th-minute red-carding of centre Jason Emery, who clattered into Willie le Roux while he was in the air fielding a kick, causing the fullback to suffer a horrendous fall on to his neck and head. Fortunately the Springbok was able to return to the field after a concussion test.
The error-rate of the Highlanders was also a major factor, with the home side making numerous handling errors to stymie their often dangerous attacking play, but the scrambling defence of the Sharks was outstanding, deserving some of the credit for forcing mistakes.
The Sharks made the most nervy of starts as they received the kick-off and set a driving maul, but were immediately penalised for obstruction, flyhalf Lima Sopoaga slotting the kick and giving the Highlanders the first three points on the scoreboard.
Flyhalf Garth April, making his first Super Rugby start, then sent the restart too deep and conceded a scrum in centre-field.
The battering for the Sharks started in the seventh minute when Sopoaga was late and led with the shoulder in a tackle on Cobus Reinach. April kicked the resulting penalty to level the scores, but the scrumhalf limped off the field with a leg-injury.
The Le Roux/Emery incident happened six minutes later and the hard-working eighthman, Philip van der Walt, also left the field in the first half with an injury.
In the 11th minute, April kicked a second penalty after the Highlanders collapsed the Sharks’ maul, after a lineout had been won five metres from the tryline thanks to a clever kick by wing Odwa Ndungane.
But despite being reduced to 14 men after Emery’s deserved ejection, the Highlanders dominated the first half. Their superior spatial recognition and the way they beat the Sharks’ first-time tacklers and dominated the collisions meant the visitors were forced to defend for long periods.
That the Sharks went into halftime 6-3 up was only thanks to Sopoaga being short with two penalties, the handling mistakes made on attack by the Highlanders and some heroic scrambling defence.
There was no better example of their courageous defence than in the last three minutes when the Highlanders piled on the pressure and the yellow-carding of lock Stephan Lewies was a potentially crippling development. But the Sharks held on magnificently and twice held the opposition up over the line.
Early in the second half, the Sharks showed some improved attacking ability, their forwards – especially Van der Walt’s replacement Jean Deysel – carrying the ball powerfully and the backline showing super ball-retention, trapping the Highlanders offsides and allowing April to stretch their lead to 9-3 with another penalty.
Lewies returned but the Sharks were only able to enjoy their 15-14 advantage for half-a-dozen minutes as the Highlanders piled on the pressure with good attacking play, leading to two penalties by Sopoaga and a yellow card for outside centre JP Pietersen, who showed ill-discipline in playing, while he was on the ground, scrumhalf Aaron Smith.
The Sharks did regain a 56th-minute lead through another April penalty (12-9), but, two minutes later, wing Matt Faddes managed to stretch his 1.85-metre frame and dot the ball down in the right-hand corner, having evaded Le Roux’s last-ditch tackle.
The Highlanders were 14-12 up going into the last five minutes; as a team, they have an attacking framework, but what followed was utter madness as they tried to run the ball from their own tryline and were forced to concede a five-metre lineout.
They stopped the driving maul and the Sharks, although they enjoyed a dominant scrum in the final quarter thanks to the introductions of Lourens Adriaanse and Chiliboy Ralepelle, were not able to exploit the extra space out wide with the Highlanders missing a centre.
But there was a penalty for them, which April slotted for a perfect five-from-five record with the boot, and a timely, shock victory for the embattled Sharks.
Even then, the Highlanders duffed a chance to snatch the win through a missed drop goal by Sopoaga and then a forward pass as a fitting final act.
There is still a lot of work ahead for the Sharks, even though they have kept themselves in touch with the leaders in the South African Group. But the attitude and commitment are clearly there, and that will be highly encouraging for coach Gary Gold.
Highlanders: Try – Matt Faddes. Penalties – Lima Sopoaga (3).
Cell C Sharks: Penalties – Garth April (5)