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Saturday, 30 March 2024 17:41

Fassi shines as Sharks find their bite in win over Edinburgh.

By Gavin Rich.

The Hollywoodbets Sharks continued their quest to gain momentum ahead of the EPCR Challenge Cup play-offs by following up their win over Ulster with a 23-13 Vodacom United Rugby Championship triumph over Edinburgh in Durban on Saturday.

The Sharks pretty much dominated the game from start to finish, coming out comfortably tops in the territory and possession stats, and might well have had cause to shake their heads afterward that there was just 10 points in it at the final whistle. The Sharks were impressive, but Edinburgh were tenacious on defence, and the hosts suffered a little bit of white line fever as crucial mistakes prevented them from converting when they should have.

Indeed, they might have been in trouble had it not been for the X-factor of Aphelele Fassi. It was the fullback who got the Sharks ahead just beyond the end of a first quarter where they had enjoyed almost 80 per cent of the territory and would have been getting frustrated at the 0-0 scoreline at that point.

There’d been a lot of impressive rugby from the Sharks, with forwards and backs combining superbly on attack but just not able to get the ball over the line. Edinburgh, like they were against the Stormers at stages of their game in Cape Town the previous week, were particularly tenacious when pinned inside their 22.

So perhaps it required something different, away from the normal, to get the Sharks into the lead on the scoreboard, and that came from a brilliant solo try from Fassi. It looked like a good Edinburgh clearance kick when Fassi took the ball close to the right touchline near his own 10 metre line.

But it was in running back kicks that the Stormers initially hurt Edinburgh at the DHL Stadium and sure enough once Fassi had broken through the first line of defenders it was clear the Scots were in disarray. Left with one man to beat, Fassi hit the burners and easily rounded his man to cross in the corner. Siya Masuku’s conversion made it 7-0.

Masuku was again positive in general play but this was a day when his place-kicking was a bit off key. The normally reliable Sharks lineout was also not as accurate as normal, with four of them going against the throw, while Edinburgh were clever in the scrums, never allowing the Sharks to get the complete dominance in that phase that appeared probable initially.

That might partially explain why Edinburgh, with the aid of a Duhan van der Merwe breakout that gave the visitors the field position that enabled Ben Healy to kick Edinburgh's first points in the 36th minute, were still in the game at 7-3 down at the break. In fact, former Sharks coach Sean Everitt might have been forgiven if he told his new team that the pendulum was starting to swing their way as it was they who had the momentum in the last 10 minutes of the half.

And with the Sharks losing Springbok lock Eben Etzebeth to what looked like a rib injury, there was a glimmer of hope for the visitors. The Sharks re-established the order of the first half hour in the first minutes of the second half, and it was Fassi again who was at the heart of things as a deft long pass created the modicum of space that skipper Lukhanyo Am needed to power over in the corner for his team’s second try.

Masuku didn’t convert but there was some daylight between the teams with 30 minutes to go, only for a bit of indiscipline to cost the Sharks as Healy drew his team back to within range with his second penalty from in front of the posts in the 56th minute. Given how dominant the Sharks still were in general play, it felt almost unbelievable that they only led 12-6.

Sharks pressure did force two penalties that this time Masuku did kick to make it 18-6. Edinburgh looked to have crossed for an intercept try to centre Matt Curry with seven minutes to go and with Edinburgh apparently back with a sniff, there would have been waves of nerves flowing through the sizeable Durban crowd that had turned up at Hollywoodbets Kings Park to support their team.

Fortunately for them Hamish Watson’s tap down of a Sharks pass was picked up and the try was ruled out.

A bit later a yellow card reduced Edinburgh to 14 men and it was while it was 15 against 14 that Phepsi Buthelezi powered over impressively in the right corner for the try that put the result beyond doubt with less than five minutes to go. Edinburgh struck back with a try from reserve prop Boan Venter off the last move of the game but it was too little too late for them and they leave South Africa having failed to even pick up a bonus point from their two matches in South Africa.

For the Sharks it was two wins in a row against two good teams and it will be the perfect confidence booster for what should be two Challenge Cup knock-out games at home over the next two weekends, starting with next Saturday’s round of 16 clash with Zebre.

Scores

Hollywoodbets Sharks 23 - Tries: Aphelele Fassi, Lukhanyo Am and Phepsi Buthelezi; Conversion: Siya Masuku; Penalties: Siya Masuku 2. Edinburgh 13 - Try: Boan Venter; Conversion: Ben Healy; Penalties: Ben Healy 2.