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Sharks go down fighting in driving London rain

Written by Rob Otto (robdylan)

Posted in :Original Content, Sharks, Super Rugby on 27 Jan 2014 at 10:45
Tagged with : , , , , , , ,

Jake White’s Sharks went down 23-15 to a game Saracens outfit in London on Saturday afternoon, but will take much confidence from an inspired second half performance that saw them finish the stronger teams, despite some truly atrocious weather.

As a pre-season hit out, this match was pretty much just what the Sharks needed and several boxes were checked. Unlike last season’s meaningless 70-point romp against the Leopards, which yielded nothing new in terms of information, but certainly did add to the injury toll, this game will have taught the new coaching team plenty – with most of it very positive. While it was always going to be a tough ask for the Sharks to move from pre-season torpour to putting up a winning show against a battle-hardened outfit like Saracens, they very nearly prevailed in a game where neither the elements, nor luck, conspired in their favour.

Anyone fearing a lack of intensity from either side given the festival nature of this encounter soon had those fears put to rest, with the 9000-strong (and mostly expat) crowd treated to some truly furious hits, from the first whistle right to the last. The Sharks started strongly, surging upfield after the kick-off and winning a penalty shortly thereafter as a Saracens player went off his feet. Rookie flyhalf Tim Swiel stepped up to stroke over his first points in Sharks colours, giving the Sharks an early 3-point lead.

While the intensity certainly was there, it was clear that the off-season certainly had robbed the Sharks of much of their polish. While the likes of captain Bismarck du Plessis, Willem Alberts and the impressive Jean Deysel continued to make waves up front with ball in hand, the backs took their time in finding each other, with some hurried play and (in particular) poorly-executed kicks, handing the advantage back to Saracens. Cobus Reinach, who endured a rather forgettable afternoon, has a kick charged down early on and it took some desperate defensive work – with Swiel prominent – to keep Saracens out.

While they may have survived that first onslaught, the Sharks battled for the rest of the half to live with a Saracens side that were quite simply more fluid and composed in everything they did. A few indiscretions at the breakdown and on the kick chase (with poor timing seeing Saracens catchers hit before they came back down) saw the penalty count start to mount against the visitors, with excitable young referee Tim Wigglesworth showing signs of losing his rag with them alarmingly early in the contest. The scrum contest certainly went the hosts’ way in those early stages too, with Saracens’ first points, via a Charlie Hodgson penalty, coming around the 20-minute mark after Jannie du Plessis was penalised for dropping his bind. A further successful shot came shortly afterwards and while the Sharks were certainly not far behind on the scoreboard at 3-6 down, one felt the momentum certainly was well against them.

Things went from bad to much, much worse in the minutes that followed. Etienne Oosthuizen was shown a yellow card for collapsing a Saracens driving maul five meters from the Sharks line and while there was little doubt that the call, though perhaps a bit harsh, was a fair one, it was the “Paul Honiss moment” that followed which really proved the suckerpunch. Having signaled time off and with a Saracens player receiving attention on the penalty spot, Wigglesworth bizarrely somehow allowed a quick tap penalty from Neil de Kock, despite the Sharks clearly being unaware that play was back on. England winger David Strettle strolled over in the left-hand corner for the simplest of sucker-punch tries before Oosthuizen had even managed to reach the touchline, with Hodgson’s successful conversion taking Saracens out to a handy 13-3 lead.

While one can forgive Wigglesworth for the first card, his decision to dish up the same to Pieter-Steph du Toit from the very next kick-off was simply crazy. Perhaps had he had the benefit of a TMO, he might have changed his mind, but when the young Springbok received his own set of marching orders for a very accidental-seeming collision with a Saracens support player, the jeers of the crowd reflected the general feeling that the inexperienced official was in danger of killing the contest by over-reaction. If White wanted a test of his team’s character, though, then those next ten minutes, with a 6-man Shark pack holding their shape and denying Saracens any further points, would have given him just that.

Alas, as so often happens, the Sharks conceded against just on half time, ironically just seconds after both locks had returned to the fray. A slow pass from Reinach to Swiel saw Saracens defenders able to close down the Sharks’ space and with an enticing overlap looming, the young flyhalf’s long pass to centre Andre Esterhuizen was snapped up by Hodgson, who streaked away for the simplest of scores. At 20-3 up, it was a confident Saracens side that departed for the half-time oranges. Bismarck du Plessis, on the other hand, had much talking to do in the shed.

It was a different Sharks team that took the field after the break, however, with the weather starting to turn. As the howling wind brought in rain from the west, the Sharks pack started to find their rhythm and some measure of control. A few timely substitutions helped, with Charl McLeod and Jacques Botes adding hugely to the cause, Swiel clearly enjoying the quicker service from the base that the experienced scrumhalf ensured. While the first 20 minutes of the half yielded no further score, it was the Sharks who struck next, after White had cleared his bench and ensured an injection of fresh legs which helped maintain the intensity up-front. Kyle Cooper and Deysel played a big role as the forwards inched closer to the line via the pick-and-go, before Esterhuizen powered over for a maiden senior try in Sharks colours about an hour in. Swiel’s conversion made the game a contest once more, with Saracens leading 20-10.

A second followed not long after, with Heimar Williams – on as a replacement at wing for Lwazi Mvovo – finishing well in the left-hand corner, again after strong work from the forwards. Swiela unfortunately found the conversion too hard, but at 15-20 down, the Sharks were now on the up and pushing hard for the win. Alas, Saracens and Wigglesworth had other ideas, with a further penalty to the hosts, awarded minutes after that try, taking them back out to an 8-point lead that the Sharks, despite some good play in driving rain, were unable to overturn in the final 10 minutes.

Speaking of Mvovo, early concerns that he may have suffered serious injury – he was stretchered off in the 48th minute – have since been allayed, with both player and management confirming nothing worse than a bit of a knock to the head, which was handled with utmost caution by the medical staff at the ground.

Saracens (23): Tries David Strettle, Charlie Hodgson. Conversions Hodgson (2). Penalties Hodgson (3).
Sharks (15): Tries Andre Esterhuizen, Heimar Williams. Conversion Tim Swiel. Penalty Swiel.


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