Struggling Sharks suffer fifth straight URC loss.
By Gavin Rich.
On a day when the Hollywoodbets Sharks showed that their intent to play a new game amounts to far more than just talk, the reality that the growing pains may continue was drummed home as Connacht edged home 13-12 in a tight Vodacom United Rugby Championship match in Durban on Saturday.
It was a game perhaps best summed up by the Sharks skipper Francois Venter in the television interview afterwards - "I don't know how we lost that one." Indeed, all the statistics will have pointed to a Sharks win and a Sharks victory looked so likely once they took the lead for the first time in the 50th minute that this report was being written then with an entirely different angle to this one.
It did look then like the Sharks were starting to take control and that their busy, high-tempo style was going to take a toll on their opponents from Ireland. That was the case even though their coach John Plumtree had agreed during the week that so far, it has usually been around that point of the game that his team run out of puff.
That is understandable because they are playing a game now that requires higher intensity across the 80 minutes and therefore, a different level of fitness.
It would be stretching it to suggest that it was fitness that let the Sharks down in this game, though they did appear to fade marginally in the final quarter. More to the point though would be to contend that the Sharks are still letting themselves down with their decision making.
Given that they were in the lead, it was a poor decision when flyhalf Curwin Bosch elected to run from his own territory in the 65th minute. Sure enough, Connacht won the turnover penalty, and JJ Hanrahan kicked the penalty that put his team into a one-point lead that they were never to relinquish.
While Hanrahan slotted that crucial difficult kick from the angle, the Sharks kickers botched their lines and it also made a difference to the end result. Boeta Chamberlain, on for Bosch in the last 10 minutes, was presented with a relatively simple kick for posts with seven minutes to go. It would have put the Sharks back into the lead and that would surely have energised them, but Chamberlain pushed it wide.
Earlier in the game, Bosch failed to convert the first Sharks try from a kickable position when he appeared to be bothered by the referee hurrying him up. The Sharks should also perhaps look back at their policy of kicking for touch rather than for posts that saw them eschew kickable penalties in both halves. Maybe when you are so desperate to win, and when games are so tight, you should be happy to find your feet first rather than jumping in at the deep end by working in increments of three.
South Africans know only too well after what happened at the World Cup that one point makes all the necessary difference between jubilation and dejection, and so it was in this game that the Sharks were left agonisingly short of breaking their duck in the wins column. It will be scant consolation, but this first game at Hollywoodbets Kings Park of the new season did provide a clear indication of what Plumtree is trying to do.
And while they didn’t get the win in this game, and after five straight defeats any kind of success this season is starting to look highly unlikely, at least in this competition and even considering that the URC is so obviously a marathon rather than a sprint, it isn’t hard to agree with Plumtree’s conviction expressed during the week that it will come right.
Should have been ahead at halftime
There were mistakes again, and had it not been for a dysfunctional lineout and a high handling error rate at critical moments, the Sharks would have been ahead at the halfway mark instead of trailing 10-5. But then, as coach Plumtree explained during the week, you are going to make more mistakes if you play the most rugby, and the Sharks certainly did that in this match that was played in front of a fairly sizeable and appreciative crowd.
It was No 8 Sean O’Brien who drove over for what was the first and only try for Connacht in the seventh minute of the game, with Hanrahan's conversion making it 7-0.
The Sharks had lots of ball in hand and played with good tempo despite the Connacht attempts to slow down both their game at the breakdown and the flow by drawing out the stoppages. It kind of summed up the Sharks’ afternoon though when a long, sustained and patient attack broke down when flanker James Venter knocked on just metres from the Connacht line.
The Sharks lineout was poor under Connacht pressure whereas the visitors were close to perfect and it contributed to the high number of Sharks entries into the Connacht red zone without it being converted into points.
The Sharks did finally get it right in the 33rd minute when Sikhumbuzo Notshe burrowed through to score off a tap penalty, with that being an example of what can happen when the decision not to kick comes off.
Bosch failed to kick the conversion that would have brought the scores level and then the Sharks almost immediately made an error as they conceded a penalty near the restart that Hanrahan kicked to take his team into their 10-5 halftime lead.
The halftime stats told a story - the Sharks had massive dominance when it came to metres run, with more than 200 metres to Connacht's 50, while all the possession and territory stats were also in the Sharks' favour. What the Sharks were doing though was making too many elementary errors, and together with their lineout dysfunction, that was one of the reasons they failed to get over the line.
The Sharks appeared to be getting momentum early in the second half and a succession of penalties eventually saw referee Craig Evans go into his pocket for a yellow, and it was when Connacht were down to 14 men that the Sharks scored what could be described as a weird try.
First, they decided to scrum the penalty, and then it went wide to Lukhanyo Am, who dropped it onto his foot and sent it sideways to Aphelele Fassi, who kicked through and wing Werner Kok caught the ball and ran around to score under the posts. The conversion put the Sharks ahead in the game for the first time and it looked then that they were on their way to victory but sadly for them, it wasn't to be.
Connacht 13 - Try: Sean O’Brien; Conversion: JJ Hanrahan; Penalties: JJ Hanrahan 2.
Hollywoodbets Sharks 12 - Tries: Sikhumbuzo Notshe, Werner Kok; Conversion: Curwin Bosch.