The Cell C Sharks had a tough time beating a 14-man Melbourne Rebels team in their Vodacom SuperRugby match at Kings Park in Durban on Friday night, eventually scrambling to a 25-21 victory.
The crowd had little to get excited about in the first half until the 29th minute when a fight broke out between Sharks tighthead Jannie du Plessis and the Rebels number three, Laurie Weeks.
Replays showed that Du Plessis had slapped Weeks on the back of the head, prompting a barrage of punches from the Rebels frontrower. With the input of the TMO Marius Jonker, referee Jaco van Heerden yellow-carded Du Plessis and gave Weeks a red card.
It meant that the Rebels played with one man short for the whole second half, but it didn’t seem to faze them as they held their own in the scrums and had a real chance of winning after scoring two tries in the final quarter.
The Sharks had little impact on attack because they lacked straight runners and their handling – as well as the Rebels’ – was dreadful.
They were given a 10-0 lead five minutes after the Du Plessis/Weeks fracas thanks to a storming run by wing S’bura Sithole, who stood out for the Sharks with his work-rate and powerful running, but the Rebels were able to cut the deficit to 7-10 on the halftime whistle, thanks to a try by eighthman and captain Scott Higginbotham, who was rightly given the man of the match award despite finishing on the losing side.
The Sharks defence had held off the Rebels for numerous phases, but the explosive Higginbotham was then given the chance to score by a weak tackle by flyhalf Lionel Cronje.
The Sharks were under pressure early in the second half, but fullback Lwazi Mvovo saved them by intercepting on his own 22 and then racing away for an 80-metre try.
The home side were plagued by scrappy ball-retention and hesitancy on attack, but replacement centre Heimar Williams lifted them to a 22-7 lead after 52 minutes with a brilliant solo try.
The 23-year-old produced the direct running that had been so lacking, cutting back inside and then racing past the cover defence for the first try of his SuperRugby career and a memorable one at that.
The Rebels fought back doggedly, however, inspired by the brilliance of Higginbotham.
On the hour mark, he stormed through a big hole in the Sharks’ midfield for his second try and, with five minutes left in the match, he set up the Rebels’ third try, by replacement wing Bryce Hegarty.
The Sharks had been on attack after Mvovo broke from deep for the second time, but once again the poor ball-retention let them down, the Reds winning a turnover and Higginbotham surging forward from the 22-metre line.
The defeat means it is the end of the road for the Rebels’ hopes of reaching the playoffs, while the Sharks are still trying to rid their game of the basic errors that hold them back.
The defence was good at times, but the attack is amongst the most insipid in the competition.
Sharks – Tries: S’Bura Sithole, Lwazi Mvovo, Heimar Williams. Conversions: Lionel Cronje (2). Penalties: Cronje (2).
Rebels – Tries: Scott Higginbotham (2), Bryce Hegarty. Conversions: Jack Debreczeni (3).