The Cell C Sharks ran out of steam in the last quarter as they let slip the opportunity to get their New Zealand tour off to a winning start as they went down 23-18 to the Blues in their Vodacom SuperRugby match at Eden Park in Auckland on Saturday.
The Sharks led 11-10 at the break, despite the Blues thoroughly dominating the first-half possession and territory stats, and the brilliance of Willie le Roux and Paul Jordaan created a try shortly after the restart, giving the visitors an 18-10 lead.
But the home side struck back, claiming a 20-18 lead with a brilliant try by wing Rieko Ioane, although the Sharks had the chances to erase the deficit thereafter. But the lineout imploded, three throws being lost inside the Blues’ 22 and lock Etienne Oosthuizen conceded a crucial ruck penalty in front of the opposition poles as well.
The opening stages of the match were marked by the Sharks’ lack of ball-retention skills: The Blues would hang on to the ball for phase after phase and, although they were sometimes way too lateral, their attacks were dangerous and they looked the much more likely team to score first.
A penalty by flyhalf Ihaia West was early reward for the Blues but, astonishingly, it was the Sharks who scored the opening try, on their first visit to the opposition 22.
It started with a fine turnover by flank Jean-Luc du Preez, but it was the appreciation-of-space skill of fullback Willie le Roux that made the try, his chip finding the Blues defence in disarray. Flyhalf Joe Pietersen gathered the bouncing ball and, from the resulting ruck, the power of Tendai Mtawarira was enough for him to barrel over the line.
Six minutes later, the scrummaging prowess of Mtawarira was to the fore as the Sharks won a set-piece penalty, which Pietersen slotted to give them an 8-3 lead.
Pietersen kicked a second penalty in the 33rd minute, after scrumhalf Cobus Reinach had pounced on a loose ball inside his own 22, hacked ahead and was taken out in the chase, but it was obvious that the Sharks defence was under pressure just given the sheer number of tackles they had to make.
Four minutes before the break, the Blues attacked from a lineout on the Sharks’ 22 and West twice just failed to find the tryline before centre George Moala, who came on when the dangerous and experienced Rene Ranger limped off with a knee injury, dotted down from a ruck a metre short.
West landed the conversion to make it a one-point game (10-11) at halftime.
Even though his kicking game is still in need of plenty of work, Le Roux is a potent threat with ball in hand as he showed in the 42nd minute. Getting the ball at first-receiver, he burst through a half-gap and outside centre Jordaan was perfectly-placed on his shoulder to take the pass and show great pace to finish the try.
Pietersen converted and the Sharks were 18-10 up. But this is a young Sharks side and, unfortunately, their composure faltered badly in the final quarter.
West, who is an enigmatic general for the Blues, sliced one penalty wide but then succeeded with his 56th-minute effort to close the gap to 13-18.
There are some top-class runners of the ball in the Blues backline and, when West anticipated well to field a clearing kick by wing Lwazi Mvovo, those players were brought into the game.
Wing Ioane managed to get around a tiring Mtawarira in the first line of defence and roared away for a superb individual try, West’s conversion giving the Blues a two-point lead.
The Sharks went straight into the Blues’ 22 from the kickoff, but Oosthuizen gave away a soft penalty at the ruck and a total meltdown in the lineout followed. A penalty by West just before the final whistle, referee Jaco Peyper making a harsh offsides call on Oosthuizen when he went for the halfback, sealed the Sharks’ fate.
There were many bright moments for the Sharks – the scrums were good and lock Stephan Lewies gave a fine all-round performance, the poor throwing by the hookers being the major problem with the lineout in the closing stages.
The loose trio of the two Du Preez brothers and Philip van der Walt was outstanding, while Le Roux and Jordaan showed that there is attacking skill in this Sharks side, given the right platform.
But with their winless streak now stretching to four matches and games against the Highlanders, Chiefs and Hurricanes (back at home) to come, even the most optimistic of Sharks supporters will now be stum.
Blues – Tries: George Moala, Rieko Ioane. Conversions: Ihaia West (2). Penalties: West (3).
Sharks – Tries: Tendai Mtawarira, Paul Jordaan. Conversion: Joe Pietersen. Penalties: Pietersen (2).