On Sunday morning, Durban played host to the second meeting between the Sharks and Highlanders in 2014, this time in the finals with the game living up to all expectations of fast, physical rugby.
The Sharks ran out narrow victors on Sunday with a tense 31-27 win over the Highlanders in Durban in the second qualifying final. The Highlanders came into the game with two ordinary performances under their belt, whilst the Sharks last game was a strong showing against the Stormers.
Early on, the Sharks showed their attacking prowess and the form that enabled them to lead the competition for the majority of the season.
An early penalty to flyhalf Francois Steyn got the scoreboard ticking for the Sharks and a barnstorming rolling maul off a lineout saw Sharks flanker Marcell Coetzee power over to push the score to 10-0 inside 15 minutes for the hosts.
The Highlanders set piece was non-existent and that caused more possession to go into the hands of the Sharks, nearly resulting in a try to prop Jannie Du Plessis, only to be judged to have made a double-movement in the act of scoring by the TMO.
After some relentless pressure from a determined Highlanders side, they were able to get on the board after a successful penalty from flyhalf Lima Sopoaga, to bring the score back to within a converted try at 10-3.
The Sharks were using their bigger and more experienced forward pack to continue applying pressure to a Highlanders side that was struggling at both the breakdown and at scrum time, and eventually another penalty was awarded to the Sharks and slotted by Steyn.
The Sharks were in total control of the game, but a lack of composure towards the end of the half meant that the Highlanders were able to weave their way back into the match with two quick tries.
A gaping hole in the Sharks defensive line allowed the Highlanders 22 year old Inside Centre Malakai Fekitoa to use a burst of speed and incredible power to score a wonderful solo try. Sopoaga converted to bring the Highlanders within striking distance at 13-10.
The Sharks were unable to turn attacking presence into points and it turned deadly when the Highlanders quickly turned possession around and caught the Sharks napping.
The Highlanders surged forward from their own 22 to score a remarkable team try and take the lead for the first time in the match heading into the sheds. At the break, the Highlanders led 17-13.
The second half was poised to be exciting, and that it was, with two back-to-back tries from the Sharks, one from their forwards and one from their flyer on the wing Tonderai Chavhanga. This put the Sharks in front by 5 with 25 minutes to go.
The Highlanders confidence was never in any doubt as they let their superb backline get them back into the contest with a miracle offload from winger Patrick Osbourne to counterpart Phil Burleigh, sending the Highlanders back into the lead again.
Sharks captain Bismarck Du Plessis was in awe at the supreme talent the Highlanders backline possessed, “their backline is absolutely amazing”.
Du Plessis added, “We certainly need to work on our defence before facing the Crusaders”, warning that the upcoming game will be a significantly harder test.
Led by the forwards, the Sharks mounted consistent attacks on the Highlanders try line. Replacement Jean Deysel lost the ball over the line in the 72nd minute, however that was soon forgotten when Sharks flyhalf Francois Steyn slotted two successive penalties to put the result beyond doubt at 31-27 at full time and end the resurgence from a determined Highlanders side.
“I’m just proud of our character” All-Blacks and Highlanders Fullback Ben Smith stated at the conclusion of the match.
It was good showing by the Highlanders, however their performance was not enough to get them over the line like it did earlier in the season at the same venue.
“We played some of the best rugby we’ve played all season in the last 20 minutes” stated Sharks coach Jake White, who will know prepare his troops for the trip to Christchurch to face the might of the Crusaders on Saturday night.
Malakai Fekitoa’s solo-try. Bismarck Du Plessis’s loose ball try.
Bismarck Du Plessis
Tries: Coetzee, Du Plessis, Chavhanga
Conversions: Steyn 2
Penalties: Steyn 4
Tries: Fekitoa, Hames, Burleigh
Conversions: Sopoaga 3
Penalties: Sopoaga 2