The Scarlets continued to build on the momentum that started to turn their way when they beat the Vodacom Bulls two months ago as they shocked the Cell C Sharks 32-20 in their Vodacom United Rugby Championship clash at Parc Y Scarlets in Llanelli.
With the Sharks getting eight frontline Springboks back for this match no-one would have picked this results, although in retrospect, and with the perfect science of hindsight, perhaps we should have. John Plumtree, who is being lined up to take over the coaching reins next season, will tell you about the day his Currie Cup team was shocked by the Cheetahs in a semifinal back in 2009 when he selected too many returning Springboks at once into his starting team.
The same thing arguably happened two years later when the Sharks were thumped by the Lions in a domestic final in Johannesburg two weeks after Plumtree’s Boks had experienced the heartache of a quarterfinal defeat in the 2011 Rugby World Cup.
SAME OLD MALAISE FOR SHARKS
Not that we should automatically just assume that it was a case of the returnees struggling to shake off the rust and fit back into the team, for the reality is that so much of what we saw from the Sharks in this game appears to be part of the same malaise that has blighted them all season.
Let’s start with tactical acumen. The Sharks looked like they were coming back into the game and maybe even starting to take control as they began to find their power game shortly before halftime, but in the third quarter when the rain started to fall more steadily their tactics and game management was nothing short of inept.
Heard that or read that before? Perhaps, for something similar was said about the Sharks’ tactical ineptitude when they made a plethora of poor decisions when they were playing 15 against the 13 when chasing the game in the last 10 minutes of the Stormers game before this. More and more it is becoming obvious that the Sharks need to make absolutely certain Plumtree arrives in Durban because it is now beyond crystal clear that they have a coaching problem.
They don’t have the depth that their financial strength demands but they do have marquee players, which was why so many took the Sharks to win this one. Their first choice team, at least if you forget how poor they were in the Champions Cup against Harlequins, has generally done okay. But you can’t expect to win consistently if your playing structure is poor and your decision making is lacking.
SCARLETS DESERVE CREDIT
The Scarlets by contrast were brilliant in the way they opened up a 13 point lead by capitalising on the period of the game when it still looked relatively dry with a wide game that placed the Sharks’ defensive system under much pressure.
Wing Stef Evans scored a brace of tries, with his first coming courtesy of a brilliantly executed team buildup in which it has to be said there were also defensive errors from the Sharks in the eighth minute.
At that point their 7-0 lead was nothing less than the hosts deserved as the Sharks were slow out of the starting blocks. You’d be tempted to say that is understandable given that the Boks hadn’t played for two months, but then the opposite was true when the Stormers Boks started out on the comeback trail against Leinster on Friday night.
Two Sam Costello penalties meant the Scarlets were comfortably ahead by the 22nd minute. It was then though that the Sharks began to come back, with Scarlets being penalised with impunity. It was indeed the Scarlets’ indiscipline that let the Sharks back into the game, and also the Sharks’ improved scrumming towards the end of the half after an iffish start.
What was problematic for the Sharks though for just about the whole match was their lineout, which should go hand in hand with the tactical failings of the Sharks’ halfbacks and their allround lack of cohesion as the reason the Durbanites lost the game.
Yet it did look like the Sharks were well back into the contest once Siya Kolisi had dotted down off a powerful driving maul, with Bosch converting. It was only brave defence from the Scarlets in the last minutes of the half, when the Sharks appeared to be gaining both momentum and composure, that kept the visitors from taking the lead by the halfway mark.
Hanging on to go into the break 13-7 would have emboldened Scarlets, although it was a Bosch penalty that started the scoring in the second half to cut the deficit to three points. Scarlets appeared to fading and they desperately needed something to go their way that would energise them.
That came their way courtesy of a mix up between Makazole Mapimpi, who had come close to scoring a try earlier, and Boeta Chamberlain when Costello put up a high kick. It led to Evans’ second try, with the winger kicking the ball through and winning the race to the dot down.
SCORE ENERGISED THE HOSTS
The energy was suddenly well and truly with Scarlets again, even though they continued to give away enough penalties to merit at least one yellow card. That the Sharks were awarded so many penalties and still lost is another warning sign for them, particularly as it was effectively the penalties kicked by Costello that separated the teams on the final scoreboard.
Costello stretched the score to 26-10 before Bongi Mbonambi touched down the second Sharks driving maul try in the 59th minute to give the Durban team some hope. A monster penalty from more than 50 metres gave them even more hope as suddenly it was a six point game, but the Scarlets were just too fired up and motivated to let it slip at that point and two more Costello penalties pushed them out of range.
The loss means the Sharks are now eighth on the log, which is outside of Champions Cup qualification. They were looking for 15 points from the last three games to put them in the bracket for a home quarterfinal. That is no longer possible so their focus now will have to switch to just making it into the top seven.
Scarlets 32 - Tries: Stef Evans 2, Conversions: Sam Costello 2; Penalties: Sam Costello 6. Cell C Sharks 20 - Tries: Siya Kolisi and Bongi Mbonambi, Conversions: Curwin Bosch 2; Penalties: Curwin Bosch 2.