Sharks sink Blues' ship in the harbour

14th Apr 2007, 12:36

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The Sharks confirmed their credentials as championship contenders when they upstaged the Blues in their Super 14 Round 11 match at the North Harbour Stadium in Albany on Saturday.

The Sharks confirmed their credentials as championship contenders when they upstaged the Blues in their Super 14 Round 11 match at the North Harbour Stadium in Albany on Saturday.

They beat the Blues 32-25, with the teams scoring three tries each. The Sharks remained in third place on the table, but closer the gap on the second-placed Blues.

The Sharks continued their march towards the play-offs with a calculated performance.

The South Africans - who came off a fantastic 59-16 win over the Reds last week - were full value for their second win on the road, a result which keeps them in the hunt for a home semi-final, but a result that was so well-executed and planned.

The Sharks had a very simple gameplan - they defended very well, they kicked to the corners, chased hard and kept the Blues under pressure for the full 80 minutes, which saw them claim three tries. The Blues, to their credit, ended with three tries of their own, but it was never going to be enough against the committed and tough-tackling Durbanites.

The match, which started late because of a fire alarm incident, began with an early penalty miss from Sharks No.10 Francois Steyn, but the crowd did not have to wait too long for the first points when right-wing Odwa Ndungane finished off a brilliant counter-attack from the visitors for the first try.

The Blues had done all the hard work, but the Sharks made them pay for a lapse in concentration, with left-wing JP Pietersen and livewire No.8 Ryan Kankowski doing well, before inside centre Brad Barritt put Ndungane away with a forward-looking pass, which the winger juggled before diving over unopposed.

Percy Montgomery missed the conversion, but the Sharks were full value at 5-0 up, which soon became 5-3 when Blues No.10 Isa Nacewa slotted a penalty after Ruan Pienaar had been caught off-sides.

The Blues put the Sharks under pressure after opening their account, but the visitors' defence held out well, with Montgomery adding a penalty and Steyn slotting a massive drop-goal from well within his own half to suddenly open up a useful 11-3 lead with just over 10 minutes to play in the half.

Nacewa chipped away at that eight-point deficit with his second penalty, but some ill-discipline from Blues second five-eighth Sam Tuitupou - for a late charge on Percy Montgomery - allowed the Sharks No.15 to cancel out Nacewa's three-pointer.

The Sharks, however, were not done yet and they delivered a hammer-blow shortly before half-time through an opportunistic JP Pietersen try. A fairly decent backline move, followed up by a clever kick into the Blues 22, had the Sharks swarming over the Blues on their own line. Blues skipper Troy Flavell helped out at halfback, but his pass was slapped down by a Sharks man, with Pietersen diving on the loose ball, much to everyone's delight. Montgomery missed the conversion, but at 19-6 up the visitors would have been well pleased with the outcome of the first half.

The second half began in typical fashion and much like the first, although there was no delay to the start of play this time! Both teams were feeling each other out again, but that quickly came to end after Pietersen's second try of the night, the winger charging down a lackadaisical clearance kick from Blues fullback Ben Atiga and diving on the ball for the try. A Montgomery punt had put the Sharks in the Blues 22, and Pietersen chased well, but the Blues had only themselves to blame for conceding the try, which Steyn converted for a 26-6 lead.

At 20 points up there was always going to be one winner only, but Blues coach David Nucifora began to ring the changes, bringing on All Blacks stars Keven Mealamu and Ali Williams (it is doubtful whether starting with them would have helped), whilst also introducing the experienced David Holwell at first five-eighth, with Nacewa moving to fullback in place of an out-of-sorts Atiga.

Mealamu made an immediate impact, but unfortunately his team-mate Tuitupou stole the show when he was yellow-carded for punching Sharks lock Johan Ackermann. Tuitupou had been warned earlier for his late hit on Montgomery and after Ackermann landed a slap/punch of his own, Tuitupou could not resist, leaving his team one man down with just under half-an-hour remaining.

Lesser sides would have given up, but Mealamu peeled away from an attacking line-out soon afterwards for his team's first try, which Nacewa converted, but some more ill-discipline cost the home team - starting halfbacks Steve Devine and Nacewa were guilty of some argy-bargy on Montgomery - and put the Sharks back in their half, allowing Steyn his second drop-goal of the night for a 29-13 lead.

The Blues kept the pressure on after Tuitupou's return from the sin bin - having outscored the Sharks by 7-3 with a man down - with replacement halfback David Gibson grabbing their second try after a comedy of Sharks error on their own goalline; Steyn and Pienaar combining to put Montgomery under pressure, the veteran No.15 eventually losing the ball behind his own line and Gibson diving on it for the try.

Nacewa's missed conversion left the Sharks ahead by 29-18, before Steyn extended his team's lead to 32-18 with just over five minutes remaining. The Sharks briefly pressed for that four-try bonus point, but it was the Blues who had the final say shortly before full-time when openside Daniel Braid dived over in the corner, Nacewa converting from the touchline and nicking a losing bonus point in the process.

Referee Stuart Dickinson still had just under one minute left on his watch when the Sharks re-started, but the Blues botched things when Tuitupou knocked the ball on in his own 22, summing up his own - and his team's - performance although one should not take any credit away from the visitors, who were full value for their victory. They might regret not having claimed a four-try bonus point, but this win could just be the difference between a home semi-final or an away one, with the Blues still due to visit South Africa in the closing weeks of the tournament.

Man of the Match: Not an easy one this at all. None of the Blues players really did enough to be considered for this, whilst the Sharks performed superbly well as a unit and played to a well though-out plan all night long. Flanker Bob Skinstad tackled his heart out, Francois Steyn's punts and drop-goals were crucial for the Sharks and so too were JP Pietersen's tries, but we're going to give this award to the entire Sharks team, who played together so well and thoroughly deserved this win.

The scorers:

For the Blues:
Tries: Mealamu, Gibson, Braid
Cons: Nacewa 2
Pens: Nacewa 2

For the Sharks:
Tries: Ndungane, Pietersen 2
Con: Steyn
Pens: Montgomery 2, Steyn
DGs: Steyn 2

Yellow card: Sam Tuitupou (Blues, 55 - foul play, punching)

Teams:

Blues: 15 Ben Atiga, 14