The Cell C Sharks were controversially denied a famous victory in Wellington on Saturday as a clear try was disallowed and several marginal calls went against them in the final quarter, as the Hurricanes registered a flattering 32-24 victory in their Vodacom SuperRugby match.
The Sharks, despite making some basic errors in defence in the first half, had pushed the runaway SuperRugby leaders all the way in the first hour, and seemed to have taken a 22-21 lead in the 62nd minute when their rolling maul thundered over the tryline.
Even the Hurricanes seemed in no doubt that the try had been scored, but referee Chris Pollock, who has robbed the Sharks in the past, called for the TMO to review any obstruction and then talked him into a ruling that the visitors had “changed lanes”. Neither leading coach John Mitchell, in the television studio, nor referee Jonathan Kaplan, on social media, could see anything wrong with the try.
The Sharks did reclaim the lead five minutes later, the skills and experience of Francois Steyn and JP Pietersen allowing them to attack from deep and easily create space as they caused the usually efficient Hurricanes defence to hesitate, Pietersen’s lovely offload inside to Odwa Ndungane allowing the wing to score.
Steyn squeezed the conversion over to put the Sharks 24-21 ahead, but the extra try would have given them a far more comfortable cushion going into the final stages.
James Marshall, the struggling stand-in for Beauden Barrett at flyhalf, pulled a straightforward penalty wide in the 70th minute, but the relentless Hurricanes attack brought them the bonus-point try three minutes later, the livewire flank Ardie Savea doing brilliantly down the right touchline to stay infield and get the ball inside for lock Jeremy Thrush to crash over.
The Sharks, who defended well in the second half, had played themselves virtually to a standstill and, with two men down injured, flyhalf Lionel Cronje inexplicably kicked the ball back to the Hurricanes. It was not the first time he had booted away possession at the most inopportune moments either. The counter-attack was swift, down the right, with replacement fullback Reynold Lee-Lo and centre Conrad Smith making good ground and forcing a penalty for hands in the ruck.
Marshall slotted this one to stretch the Hurricanes’ lead to 29-24 and, in the final minute, he kicked the penalty that denied the Sharks a well-deserved bonus point, after the referee had harshly penalised Kyle Cooper, a hooker playing as replacement flank, for going off his feet at a ruck.
The other marginal call by Pollock in the final quarter came when abrasive hooker Motu Matu’u crashed into Ndungane after the wing had kicked but the referee ruled no sanction was necessary.
But it was a gallant effort by a Sharks side for which nothing has gone right this season and they showed they were up for the contest when they opened the scoring in the seventh minute with a try that followed some tremendous attacking play.
They showed great ball-retention, pace on the ball and, with wing S’Bura Sithole and Pietersen making strong runs, they were deep in the Hurricanes’ 22. The home side had a lineout five metres from their own line and Sharks captain Marco Wentzel, the stalwart of that set-piece, slapped the ball out of Thrush’s hands and Bismarck du Plessis drove over for the try.
The Hurricanes were quickly level, however, the sneakiest attacking side in Super Rugby holding the ball through 20 phases and then seizing the opportunity when the Sharks’ defence became too narrow. The sight of Cronje running all over the place indicated there was disarray and centre Ma’a Nonu, a constant threat, produced a lovely long pass out wide for wing Cory Jane to score.
The Sharks were rewarded with a penalty by Steyn (10-7) for their own excellent period of ball-retention, bashing the ball up for 23 phases as props Jannie du Plessis and Tendai Mtawarira were prominent on the drive and Pietersen was once again direct and effective.
But the Hurricanes were back in front just three minutes later as they reopened gaping holes in the Sharks’ defence. After a lineout, Nonu put left wing Matt Proctor through the gap with a super inside ball and then Smith went through Pietersen’s feeble tackle to score.
Marshall’s conversion put the home side 14-10 up and, when flank Etienne Oosthuizen was yellow-carded for the Sharks’ third high tackle in the opening quarter, the embattled visitors looked as if they might be buried.
But their rolling maul was a good attacking weapon and their pack fronted up in fantastic fashion at the collisions, also winning several turnovers. One of these led to a penalty for the Sharks from halfway in the final minute, but Steyn made a hash of it with a poor strike.
At 10-14 down at the break, the Sharks were still in the game, their simple but effective approach working. At halftime they had used 25 pick-and-goes to zero by the Hurricanes.
The Sharks kept at the Hurricanes in the third quarter, led by Bismarck du Plessis, who at one stage picked scrumhalf Chris Smylie up and carried him back several metres, won successive turnovers and even put in a clearing kick.
The hooker followed that kick up and won the turnover again, the Sharks beating the Hurricanes at their own game as Cronje exploited the space well to send Sithole racing over out wide.
The lead changed hands again in the 53rd minute when the power of Nonu, after eighthman Victor Vito had burst off a scrum, took the Hurricanes into the shadow of the Sharks’ poles and the South African-born replacement flank Reggie Goodes barged over the line.
The conversion was good, but the Sharks fought back once again and surely secured the moral victory, for what it’s worth.
Sharks – Tries: Bismarck du Plessis, S’Bura Sithole, Odwa Ndungane. Conversions: Francois Steyn (3). Penalty: Steyn.
Hurricanes – Tries: Cory Jane, Conrad Smith, Reggie Goodes, Jeremy Thrush. Conversions: James Marshall (3). Penalties: Marshall (2).