Poor start stunts Sharks challenge
Gavin Rich
July 21, 2018

The scoreboard reflected a predictably comfortable 40-10 win for the Crusaders but the Cell C Sharks will return to Durban from their Vodacom Super Rugby quarterfinal at AMI Stadium in Christchurch reflecting on what might have been had it not been for the lamentable mistakes that contributed to their poor start.

It has been a perennial problem for the Sharks this season - the games they have lost have tended to be ones where in no time at all the opposition have either built up an early lead or been allowed to make the first big statement and thus gain the initial momentum.

With the likelihood that jetlag, the legacy of the long flight from east to west earlier in the week, would catch up with the Sharks in the last quarter, which it most emphatically did, it was imperative for the Sharks to reverse that sequence in this game. If they were going to challenge the Crusaders, they needed to make the early statement.

It didn’t turn out that way, and with the Sharks producing a slew of errors across the board that their opponents were able to feast on, they found themselves trailing 13-0 after just 12 minutes. They came back strongly after that, and it was in the middle stages of the game that the Sharks produced the rugby that might have had them reflecting on what might have been had they not given away so many points early in the game.

By the hour mark, the statistics for the game made interesting reading - the Sharks had enjoyed 65% possession and had an advantage in the territorial battle too. But the turn-over and tackles missed stats were against them and they trailed 26-10. With the last quarter to come and the Crusaders likely to finish strongly, the game was effectively gone, with those 13 points in the first quarter of an hour effectively being the killer.

The Sharks certainly didn’t help themselves early in the game, while the Crusaders seemed determined to show up the Sharks’ stated intent during the build-up week of trying to hurt them in the tight phases.

It was a comedy of errors first up from the Sharks, with a good lineout win being followed by a kick direct into touch, from where the Crusaders set up the attack, with the pace of George Bridge making the initial thrust that led to their first try to scrumhalf Bryn Hall in the ninth minute.

The Crusaders were already up 3-0 following a Richie Mo’unga penalty, so although Mo’unga wasn’t able to follow up the three-pointer by converting Hall’s try, the hosts were already more than a score ahead.

The errors continued for the Sharks, the defence was too passive and lax, and the Crusaders capitalised by quickly following the Hall try with another to fullback David Havili. Again Mo’unga failed to convert, but the advantage was 13 points, and that was enough to force the Sharks into a catch-up role that they were unlikely to get right.

They did make a great fist of it though for the rest of the half. Initially, after they’d settled and started to achieve their objective of starving the Crusaders of possession, they let themselves down by not making full use of their opportunities. One of those was an easy penalty kick from Robert du Preez that hit the posts, and then came a Philip van der Walt knock on with an open line at his mercy.

It stuck with the theme of the Sharks just getting everything wrong in the first part of the game.

The Sharks did make up for the Van der Walt lapse a few minutes later when the underrated Kobus van Wyk intercepted what looked like a potential try-creating build-up from the Crusaders. It set in motion the Sharks attack that culminated with Van Wyk crossing in the left corner for his team’s first points.

Du Preez’s good conversion kick cut the deficit to six points, and with the Sharks gaining confidence and getting some pay back for their good direct carrying and some enterprising attack that perhaps just lacked a clinical finishing edge, suddenly it looked like it could be anybody’s game.

The Crusaders though weren’t in the charitable mood that the Lions were when they visited Durban three weeks ago. Presented with an opportunity to kick three points just before halftime, the Crusaders took it to extend their lead beyond the converted try mark.

That was crucial, as it took the game back into scoreboard pressure territory and on the stroke of halftime it would also have been a psychological blow for the Sharks to be looking at a nine-point deficit (16-7) after dominating so much of the game beyond the initial 12 minutes.

It meant that the Crusaders would be on the march if they were the next to score, and they didn’t waste any time early in the second half in doing that, with Bridge ghosting through a gap in the lineout from the first receiver position to create the chance for Matt Todd to score. With the conversion it meant that the Crusaders were 16 points up.

The Sharks worked hard after that to draw three points back with a Du Preez penalty, but it was that sort of night for the Sharks - after working so hard to get the ascendancy, they gave those three points away again when they presented Mo’unga with another opportunity. This was not the Lions the Sharks were playing, but the Crusaders, and they took it.

The Crusaders probably weren’t as good as they were expected to be, and never gave the impression, apart from maybe the first quarter of an hour and in the period deep into the third quarter where they wrapped it up with two quick tries from Braydon Ennor and Peter Samu, that they were engaging top gear.

They would probably have ended the game feeling concerned at the ease with which the Sharks were able to win the gain-line battle at certain points of the game, as well as the disparity when it came to possession and territory.

However, there were telling statistics in their favour that indicated the chasm in class - they missed three times fewer tackles than the Sharks did, while the Sharks suffered hugely when it came to turn over possession. They were turned over 22 times in the 80 minutes, and you can’t expect to win when that is the case, particularly not in the playoff phase of the competition.

There again, maybe the real truth is that you can’t expect a team that finishes eighth on the log to travel across the time-zones west to east and beat a top ranked team like the Crusaders on their home field. The Sharks effectively lost this due to the inconsistency throughout the season which cost them a more favourable draw going into the playoffs.

There was something too predictable about this game, and perhaps the format that allows the team that finishes eighth in a 15-team competition to challenge the team that finishes top needs to be looked at. It doesn’t really make any sense.


Crusaders 40 - Tries: Bryn Hall, David Havili, Matt Todd, Braydon Ennor and Peter Samu; Conversions: Richie Mo’unga 3; Penalties: Richie Mo’unga 3.

Cell C Sharks 10 - Try: Kobus van Wyk; Conversion: Robert du Preez; Penalty: Robert du Preez.

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