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Ruan Botha © Gallo Images

Sharks go from zero to hero

The Emirates Lions failed to make the statement many South African rugby fans would have been hoping for but the disappointment should be counter-balanced by the Cell C Sharks’ unexpectedly exceptional performance in Auckland.

Eden Park has tended to be quite a happy hunting ground for the Sharks down the years and they have scored some fine wins, either in Auckland or at the North Shore Stadium in Albany across the harbour bridge, but seldom have they needed a victory as badly as they did on Easter Saturday. They didn’t just provide it, they did it in fine style, with Jean-Luc du Preez in particular turning in a performance that, if he continues in that way, will mark him as a world-class player.

Okay, so maybe we shouldn’t get too carried away. The Blues aren’t the best New Zealand team. And they’ve been known to occasionally fall apart, even on their home field. But it was the quality of the Sharks performance, which was undeniable, that shone through, and let’s not forget that it was the Blues who ended the Lions’ unbeaten sequence not that long ago. Until they lost to the Stormers at Newlands a fortnight ago, the Blues were considered a much-improved side.

Apart from Jean-Luc, it was also the day that the other Du Preez, flyhalf Robert, stood up. The pivot hasn’t set the world alight since swapping Cape Town for Durban to play for his father, also Robert, and the questions were starting to be asked after the opening two tour defeats in Australia.

Had Du Preez turned in another nondescript performance against the Blues, the clamour for Curwin Bosch to move back to flyhalf might have intensified.

But in Auckland Du Preez stood tall, and as a result so did the players around him as the Sharks as a collective gave substance to their coach’s claim that they weren’t far away from flicking the magical switch that transforms a struggling team into a good one.

Du Preez though would not have played like he did, and perhaps you could say the same for Jean-Luc, were it not for the platform laid by the tight five.

The Sharks big men have been much maligned this year, indeed since the end of the last domestic season, and perhaps rightly so. But this was a game where the Sharks pack stood up and became a dominant force, and as a result everything else fitted seamlessly into place and the various components of the team, so out of sync before this, started to work together.

Talking about packs, that was the key to the Bulls’ win over the Stormers later in the day too. The big question mark against the Bulls would have been whether they could live with a Stormers pack that has been at least the equal if not dominant over most opponents this season, and their forwards responded in fine style.

Their win over the Stormers featured many of the dynamic additions made to the Bulls’ playing style by John Mitchell, and the try scored by Jessie Kriel was nothing short of sublime. The Bulls have long spoken about changing their game and moving away from one-dimensional crash and bash rugby, but it is only now that they are actually managing to do it effectively.

The key though is that Mitchell hasn’t neglected the Bulls’ traditional strengths and has instead sought a blend. And while the Pretoria team returned from their tour having lost three games in succession (it was actually four if you include the Lions game that came before it), they did clearly learn from their New Zealand trip.

Beating the Stormers these days is nothing to scoff at. The Cape side has tended to have the wood over the Bulls in Super Rugby in recent years, but this was a time when they were always chasing the game.

There was a period when Siya Kolisi’s team were well back in it and appeared to be gaining momentum shortly after halftime, but it was a day where their indiscipline let them down, with the yellow carding of Pieter-Steph du Toit proving a hammer blow to their chances of winning.

What should frustrate Stormers coach Robbie Fleck is that the Bulls’ recipe for success was no different to what he anticipated. They started strongly, applied all the early pressure, forced penalties, got points on the board, and left the Stormers having to play catch up after the first quarter.

The game was the good advertisement for South African rugby that was hoped for, and the Bulls weren't the only team to impress. The try that Damian de Allende scored for the Stormers in the first half was special, and there were several skilful touches from both teams in a game that was played at a good tempo.

One win doesn’t make a season just as one swallow doesn’t make a summer, but the Bulls’ performance did confirm that they are going to be a tough team to beat on South African soil. Mitchell is the local coach who has the most to fix, so there really shouldn’t be any pressure on him now to produce results.

No-one who has watched the Bulls play this season can deny the growth and the improvements made, but there were whispers that the pressure was starting to intensify, so this win was good for Mitchell and by implication the Bulls and even South African rugby.

The one side that has beaten the Bulls at Loftus this year is the Lions, but you’d have to question whether they’d manage that task as easily now as they did when the two teams clashed at the start of last month. The Lions have lost three of the four games they have played since then, and the momentum and the confidence of back then has been dented.

The Lions did well in the end to lose to the Crusaders by just six points, for their achievement in the Easter Sunday shoot-out at Emirates Airlines Park was to be resilient enough to hang in when the Crusaders dominated possession and territory.

The visitors had three tries disallowed in the match (two in the first half) and it beggared belief, considering how much of the game the Crusaders dominated, that the hosts led 5-0 at halftime.

The mounting tackle count though suggested it would be the Crusaders’ day, and while it wasn’t quite a case of the dam wall bursting, which was what we suspected would happen after halftime, the Crusaders were able to quickly follow up their first try with a second. On a day when the Lions were mostly under pressure and forced into a defensive role, that was always going to be enough.

Full marks to the Lions though for the way they have improved their defensive game, something that will give them some heart as they anticipate their home clash with the Stormers this coming Saturday. They have a seven-point lead on the South African conference log over the Stormers and the Sharks, but it should be noted that the Sharks have a game in hand on them. So we are in for an interesting couple of weeks as we head into a phase of big derby games.

Weekend results

Chiefs 27 Highlanders 22

Rebels 19 Hurricanes 50

Blues 40 Cell C Sharks 63

Brumbies 17 Waratahs 24

Vodacom Bulls 33 DHL Stormers 23

Emirates Lions 8 Crusaders 14


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