The Sharks will be contemplating the rest of their SuperRugby overseas tour with sheer terror after they were put to the sword, 48-15, by the Highlanders in their opening match in Dunedin on Friday.
While the Highlanders obviously deserve credit for their superb display – highlighted by their dazzling skill and vision on attack – the miserable defence of the Sharks, the number of basic mistakes they made and their own lacklustre attack made this one of their most dismal performances, almost as bad as the rout they suffered at the hands of the Crusaders at Kings Park a month ago.
The brilliance of Highlanders flyhalf Lima Sopoaga, running at the line and invariably choosing the right option, had the Sharks’ defence at sixes and sevens and the pace and power of Patrick Osborne saw the wing create numerous gaps.
The support play of the home side was also outstanding and their skill in offloading meant they strolled to seven tries.
The first visit of the Highlanders to the Sharks’ 22 brought a try as fullback Odwa Ndungane rushed out of the defensive line to give flank Gareth Evans an easy run-in after wings Osborne and Waisake Naholo had crashed through on mini-breaks. It was a portent of the defensive failures that were to dog the Sharks all night, while Ndungane was also caught out of position on numerous occasions by the clever kicking games of half-backs Sopoaga and Aaron Smith.
The lead was extended to 10-0 in the 21st minute when Sopoaga, impressive with the boot as well, kicked a penalty after Osborne and skilful eighthman Nasi Manu went over the gain-line before a super offload to hooker Liam Coltman drew a stupid ruck infringement from flank Etienne Oosthuizen, the late replacement for Renaldo Bothma.
The Sharks did well, though, to level the scores by the 32nd minute.
The kicking game of the Sharks was generally poor, but one good up-and-under by flyhalf Fred Zeilinga led to a penalty for offsides which he kicked, before the powerful ball-carrying of Tendai Mtawarira, Bismarck du Plessis, Willem Alberts and Stephan Lewies allowed The Beast to plough his way over from a ruck close to the line.
The response from the Highlanders was swift and brutal, however, as they scored two quick tries to go into the break with a healthy 24-10 lead.
Sopoaga really bloomed in those four minutes before half-time, his brilliant little chip-kick to Naholo, after Smith’s quick tap-penalty and break, setting up the winger’s try and then his run across the face of the defence creating space out wide for Osborne, who was found with a great, long pass.
But instead of regrouping at half-time, the Sharks came out and produced one of the worst 40 minutes in their history as they utterly failed to corral the rampant Highlanders attack.
The lack of urgency and general malaise was epitomised by replacement scrumhalf Conrad Hoffman being in lala land as Marco Wentzel’s lineout steal was tapped past him and his tardiness in dotting down in the in-goal area saw lock Mark Reddish sneak in for the bonus point try.
Two minutes later, Smith made it 36-10 as he ranged up in support of centre Richard Buckman’s half-break, but the Sharks were on attack when they conceded the sixth try.
Protecting the ball and the basic skills of passing and catching are variables that are in a team’s own control and the Sharks were dreadful in those departments, losing possession inside the Highlanders’ 22 in the 67th minute and, with a variety of players getting through the half-gap and offloading, the home side scored a great team try, rounded off by replacement prop Brendon Edmonds.
The Sharks managed to show enough interest in the contest for hooker Du Plessis to score off a lineout drive in the 71st minute, but the Highlanders gained sweet revenge when their own pack drove their way to a 79th-minute try, replacement flank Elliot Dixon dotting down.
This must rate as one of the weakest Sharks teams to ever play Super Rugby, with too many players out of their depth at this level.
Highlanders: Tries – Gareth Evans, Waisake Naholo, Patrick Osborne, Mark Reddish, Aaron Smith, Brendon Edmonds, Elliot Dixon. Conversions – Lima Sopoaga (5). Penalty – Sopoaga.
Sharks: Tries – Tendai Mtawarira, Bismarck du Plessis. Conversion – Fred Zeilinga. Penalty –Zeilinga.