Despite two yellow cards, the Sharks shut down the Blues with a 29-23 win at North Harbour Stadium on Friday to stay top.
Despite two yellow cards, the Sharks shut down the Blues with a 29-23 win at North Harbour Stadium on Friday to stay top of the log.
Shutting down opposition teams might not win the Sharks many neutral supporters, but they keep winning with an effective, soul-destroying style.
This was their tenth victory in 13 matches, moving them 16 points clear of the Bulls in the South African Conference before their match later on Friday against the Brumbies.
Even without the banned Jean Deysel, the Sharks weren't troubled as they squeezed out their hosts at the breakdown. Yellow cards for Jannie du Plessis and Frans Steyn were both correctly awarded but even they couldn't alter the destiny of this result despite a nervous finish.
The flair from the Blues and power of the Sharks always felt like a mismatch on paper and so it proved to be early on, as Steyn persistently punished the home side for any indiscretions.
That trend began in the third minute with a 40-metre penalty as the Blues infringed at the ruck, Hickey drawing the hosts level shortly after.
No player exemplifies the directness of the Sharks better than Bismarck du Plessis, who crashed his way over from close-range for the game's first try after a good carry from S'bura Sithole.
A missed attempt from Hickey was made up for a few minutes later as he landed his third strike, the Blues staying tight in the game at 6-10, but despite dominating possession they couldn't capitalise on promising field position deep in the Sharks' 22 with the defence from the league leaders holding firm.
Keegan Daniel's clever grubber kick created a chance for JP Pietersen, but the bouncing ball was too elusive for the Springbok winger to gather in slippery conditions from the light rain.
Steyn turned the screw with a drop goal and another penalty before the half was out to give the Sharks a healthy 16-6 lead by the break.
'Patience' was the mantra uttered by the Blues coaching staff at half-time and it paid off instantly with a penalty as Jannie du Plessis was sent to the bin.
Kicking for goal would have seemed the obvious option but the numerical advantage in the pack was too appealing for skipper Luke Braid to turn down. The captain had gambled and after consultation with the TMO for a possible obstruction, scored by ducking under a rare gap in the defence.
The expectation was that momentum would flow the way of the Blues considering they were a man up, but the Sharks pounced by kicking through behind Frank Halai to start a passage of play where they pinned the Blues deep in their 22, coming away eventually with a third penalty from Steyn.
A throw of the dice from the Blues saw Ihaia West replace Hickey in a bid to open the game up, but it worked against them.
The Sharks had bossed the breakdown throughout and when applying pressure the ball spilled loose and was hacked forward by Bismarck du Plessis, Cobus Reinach beating Lolagi Visinia to the ball and diving for the Sharks second try. 26-16 to the visitors heading into the final quarter.
Good close-range work from the Blues forwards created an advantage, but they needed a second try. Steyn's cynical play at the ruck saw the Sharks issued another yellow card.
Steyn's illegality aside, the Sharks gritty defence was magnificent in bursting up off their line to turn over possession and clear was perfectly executed.
A controversial pass from Ma'a Nonu handed a try to Tevita Li in the corner to bring the Blues surprisingly back in contention after West's conversion. Nonu's hands were adjudged to be going backwards.
Within six points the Blues had to stay composed, but they blew that instantly when Sam Prattley idiotically took out a man off the ball. SP Marais slotted the penalty as Steyn returned from the bin.
West's second penalty brought the Blues back within seven points with eight minutes left, the beginning of a spirited resurgence from the home side that felt all too late in the contest with time ticking away.
A combination of resilient defence and penalties though stopped the Blues short. Another feather in the cap for the Sharks as they won in New Zealand for a second week in a row, but they were pushed here at the end.
Tries: Braid, Li
Cons: Hickey, West
Pens Hickey 2, West
Tries: B du Plessis, Reinach
Cons: Steyn 2
Pens: Steyn 3, Marais
Drop Goal: Steyn
Yellow Cards: J du Plessis, Steyn
Blues: 15 Lolagi Visinia, 14 Frank Halai, 13 Pita Ahki, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Simon Hickey, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Jerome Kaino, 7 Luke Braid (c), 6 Peter Saili, 5 Tom Donnelly, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 Keven Mealamu, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacement: 16 James Parsons, 17 Sam Prattley, 18 Angus Ta'avao, 19 Hayden Triggs, 20 Steven Luatua, 21 Jamison Gibson-Park, 22 Ihaia West, 23 Albert Nikoro.
Sharks: 15 SP Marais, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 S'bura Sithole, 12 Paul Jordaan, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Francois Steyn, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Willem Alberts, 7 Tera Mtembu, 6 Jacques Botes, 5 Stephan Lewies, 4 Etienne Oosthuizen, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis (c), 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Replacements: 16 Kyle Cooper, 17 Dale Chadwick, 18 Lourens Adriaanse, 19 Ryan Kankowski, 20 Keegan Daniel, 21 Charl McLeod, 22 Tim Swiel, 23 Heimar Williams
Referee: Nick Briant (New Zealand)