The Cell C Sharks sung the blues once again on their overseas tour as they were unable to overcome their own first-half mistakes, a fired-up Waratahs side and one of the most disgracefully one-eyed officiating performances in Sanzar history in losing 33-18 in their Vodacom SuperRugby match in Sydney on Saturday.
Referee Rohan Hoffman, TMO George Ayoub and the assistant referees were so determined to sing the home side’s tune that the Sharks never had a chance, despite turning in an excellent second-half performance against a team that surely does not have it in them to be repeat SuperRugby champions unless other forces are at play. The fact that Sanzar are based in Sydney does not ease the speculation that was running rampant on social media on Saturday nor the genuine fears that rugby is totally naïve when it comes to matchfixing, much as cricket was.
The decisions to award wing Taqele Naiyaravoro’s 53rd-minute try, although he lost control of the ball and there was absolutely no evidence of grounding, and the TMO’s call to disallow opposite number S’bura Sithole’s touchdown in the 70th minute, were particularly damaging to the Sharks.
Waratahs flyhalf Bernard Foley was also able to kick four penalties as Hoffman punished the Sharks for a high tackle when the ball-carrier had clearly slipped and fallen into an arm that was at a perfectly legal height and for ruck offences when the home team were clearly not supporting their own body weight.
As outrage grew on South African social media, Sharks CEO John Smit told The Citizen: “I’m sure Sanzar leadership is strong enough to do something before we need to enquire … I hope”.
It looked like it was going to be a miserable day for the Sharks right from the outset as centre Adam Ashley-Cooper scored after 55 seconds, but that was entirely down to the visitors’ lacklustre defence and the brilliance of the Waratahs in exploiting the gaps.
The Sharks kicked out on halfway from the opening kickoff, and scrumhalf Nick Phipps passed inside after the lineout tap to livewire flank Michael Hooper, who burst through a huge gap the visitors were shockingly slow to close, before passing out to Ashley-Cooper, who powered over the line.
Sharks centre Francois Steyn pulled back a penalty from a scrum in the 17th minute, but Foley was able to stretch the lead to 10-3 at the end of the first quarter after captain Marco Wentzel, in a bid to turnover a loose ball, held on under pressure from Ashley-Cooper and conceded a penalty after another Waratahs attack sparked by Hooper.
The Sharks would have begun to feel Hoffman was screwing them over in the 28th minute when he made a ridiculous forward-pass call against Bismarck du Plessis, the Waratahs then being given another penalty as the scrum went down, Foley making the score 13-3.
Steyn narrowed the gap to 6-13 five minutes before the break after a sneaky hand in the ruck by the Waratahs was penalised. They then managed to win a Waratahs lineout throw on their own line after brilliant scramble defence stopped fullback Israel Folau from scoring and won a penalty. Hoffman told the Sharks it was halftime, so they kicked the ball straight out only for the disgraceful referee to give the Waratahs the lineout!
The Sharks were certainly in the game after the shock of conceding that first-minute try, but a shaky defence – six tackles were missed in the first 10 minutes and 15 in the first half alone – and their own basic mistakes were really hurting them as their promising attacks lacked the finishing touches.
Consultant Brendan Venter was seen addressing them during the break and the Sharks dished up some impressive fare in the second half.
They claimed the vital first score of the second half when they closed the gap to 11-13 thanks to flyhalf Lionel Cronje’s brilliant crosskick from a penalty, that was well-finished by wing Odwa Ndungane.
But three minutes later, it became clear that the officials would ensure the Sharks could say farewell to any chance of a morale-boosting win against the defending champions.
Massive wing Taqele Naiyaravoro powered down the right but lost control of the ball in the tackle by Sithole on the goal-line. With two pairs of legs rolling over and the ball seemingly stuck in between them, TMO Ayoub, (the whole of South Africa rejoiced when he was no longer an on-field referee), awarded the try despite there being absolutely no evidence of grounding.
Foley’s conversion gave the Waratahs a crucial 20-11 lead after 53 minutes but the Sharks lifted themselves when veterans Du Plessis and Steyn showed that they are not rugby oupas by slickly combining for the centre to score, Cronje also providing some vital touches in the build-up.
Steyn’s conversion made it a two-point game (18-20), but the Sharks were knocked back to the mat as Hoffman awarded two more controversial penalties against the Sharks – the ridiculous high-tackle call against Cronje when centre Kurtley Beale slipped and fell over into the tackle and a harsh deliberate knock-on call against JP Pietersen.
There was much to enthuse about the Sharks’ second-half display on attack, none more so than when they got the ball wide to Sithole and he powered down the left in a thrilling run, but the fun for the visitors was soon ended when Beale shoulder-charged the wing into the corner flag. That does not mean he is in touch, of course, but Ayoub decided he was and Beale escaped punishment for his no-arms tackle.
Any chance of even taking a point out of a game that they could well have won given decent officiating disappeared in the 79th minute when a poor pass from the otherwise good scrumhalf Stefan Ungerer was fumbled by Cronje and Foley pounced, kicking the ball through and re-gathering to score.
These days, any referee appointed by Sanzar could be incompetent, but this game seemed different in that there weren’t any bad calls against the Waratahs.
Whether any action will be taken by Sanzar remains to be seen, but past experience suggests the carpet in their Sydney headquarters will merely have more swept underneath it.
Waratahs: Tries – Adam Ashley-Cooper, Taqele Naiyaravoro, Bernard Foley. Conversions –Foley (3). Penalties – Foley (4).
Sharks: Try – Odwa Ndungane, Francois Steyn. Conversion – Steyn. Penalties – Steyn (2).