Sharks sweat over three injured Springboks for Challenge Cup final after defeat to Benetton

Jared Wright
Lukhanyo Am, captain of the Sharks, during the United Rugby Championship.

Lukhanyo Am, captain of the Sharks, during the United Rugby Championship.

Jacob Umaga’s cameo off the bench steered Benetton to a 25-24 United Rugby Championship victory over the Sharks at Kings Park in Durban on Saturday.

The replacement back converted his own try in the 78th minute to secure the victory for the visitors after slotting a penalty to make it a one-score game in the 72nd minute.

His impact completed the comeback for the Italian side, who trailed for much of the match but kept their hopes of a play-off spot alive.

As for the Sharks, head coach John Plumtree backed many of his front-line players who featured in the victory over Clermont in the Challenge Cup semi-final for the fixture despite being out of the running for the play-offs. However, he will rue that decision after three starting Springboks were forced off the pitch in the first half, with another withdrawing before kick-off.

Matters were made worse with centre Murray Koster red-carded in the final minutes of the match and Benetton duly capitalised.

Sharks winger Werner Kok continued his try-scoring form, grabbing a brace in the match. There were further tries from prop Ox Nche and full-back Aphelele Fassi kept the scoreboard ticking over for the hosts.

But in the end, it was Benetton who emerged victorious thanks to tries from Tommaso Menoncello, Gianmarco Lucchesi and Umaga.

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Benetton were quickest out the blocks after fly-half Leonardo Marin capitalised on a turnover to execute a stunning 50:22 to drive them upfield. They continued to apply the pressure and were rewarded with a penalty that Marin slotted just before the shot clock expired.

The Italian side were successful with their aerial bombs in the opening exchanges, but the Sharks were the first to cross the whitewash with Siya Masuku throwing a sublime long pass out to full-back Fassi, who threw a dummy before racing over for the opening try in the 15th minute.

Plumtree and his coaching staff may well rue the decision to go full-tilt for the URC fixture, with the Challenge Cup final against Gloucester looming as the injury concerns quickly racked up. Vincent Koch limped off the pitch looking rather uncomfortable, shortly followed by lock Eben Etzebeth, who departed for an HIA and never returned. This after fellow Springbok Francois Venter withdrew from the starting XV before kick-off and was replaced by Koster.

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Despite losing the pair of Springbok forwards, the Sharks’ pack went to work and were rewarded when James Venter’s thundering carry took them within a metre before Nche rounded off the score.

The hosts looked comfortable from there, with the defence remaining relatively firm until a trademark Juan Ignacio Brex short ball saw Menoncello sprint past Lukhanyo Am and race away for the visitors’ first try of the game.

That would be Am’s final involvement of the match as he also left the pitch with an injury as the Sharks held onto a 12-8 lead at half-time. Perhaps in response to the first-half injuries, Grant Williams, Nche and Bongi Mbonambi were all replaced at the break.

Again, the visitors were quickest out the blocks and hooker Lucchesi came up with the ball over the line from the driving maul to put Benetton ahead.

However, their lead was short-lived again as Kok skinned Andy Uren outside the Benetton 22 and powered through three attempted tackles to score a stunning try.

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10 minutes later, Kok doubled his tally as he skipped past Marco Zanon’s attempted tackle to finish off a fantastic flowing attack kick-started by a superb high ball catch by Fassi.

Benetton kept the pressure on the Sharks’ defence and looked to have unlocked it through their brilliant centre Brex throwing a long pass out to Igancio Mendy, but it was deemed to have been forward. They looked to have scored again soon after following a mix-up with Fassi and Makazole Mapimpi, but the latter did just enough to get a hand ahead of Dewaldt Duvenage to deny the try.

A clutch penalty from Umaga did eventually bring Benetton within one score of the Sharks in the final knockings of the game when Koster was given his marching orders the Italians struck.

Umaga first put in a brilliant kick to touch before sliding through the defence to score the decisive try and convert the clutch kick.

The teams

Sharks: 15 Aphelele Fassi, 14 Werner Kok, 13 Lukhanyo Am (c), 12 Murray Koster, 11 Makazole Mapimpi, 10 Siya Masuku, 9 Grant Williams, 8 Vincent Tshituka, 7 Gerbrandt Grobler, 6 James Venter, 5 Corne Rahl, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Vincent Koch, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 Ox Nche
Replacements: 16 Fez Mbatha, 17 Ntuthuko Mchunu, 18 Hanro Jacobs, 19 Lappies Labuschagne, 20 Tino Mavesere, 21 Cameron Wright, 22 Boeta Chamberlain, 23 Diego Appolis

Benetton: 15 Rhyno Smith, 14 Ignacio Mendy, 13 Tommaso Menoncello, 12 Ignacio Brex, 11 Onisi Ratave, 10 Leonardo Marin, 9 Andy Uren, 8 Lorenzo Cannone, 7 Sebastian Negri, 6 Alessandro Izekor, 5 Eli Snyman (c), 4 Niccolò Cannone, 3 Simone Ferrari, 2 Gianmarco Lucchesi, 1 Federico Zani
Replacements: 16 Bautista Bernasconi, 17 Destiny Aminu, 18 Giosué Zilocchi, 19 Edoardo Iachizzi, 20 Riccardo Favretto, 21 Dewaldt Duvenage, 22 Jacob Umaga, 23 Marco Zanon

Referee: Mike Adamson (SRU)
Assistant Referees: Morne Ferreira (SARU), Hanru Van Rooyen (SARU)
TMO: Hollie Davidson (SRU)

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