Sunday 121st April, 2002
ABSA Stadium, Durban, South Africa
Referee: Peter Marshall
Crusaders 37 - Sharks 34
This game was on at 4am NZ time. I would consider getting up for a test match at that time, but Crusaders vs Sharks doesn't quite warrant such die-hard devotion, instead we taped it and SG and I watched it at 8:30am.
The Sharks at home have been more like the 2001 version of themselves so I was expecting a tough battle, but ultimately a reasonably comfortable win. (I mean Brumbies and the Waratahs both won twice in SA, so surely we can too!)
Bearing this expectation in mind I was a bit shellshocked when we were down 13-0 after about 14 minutes. The Sharks came out firing and our boys didn't cope well at all with the pressure.
We struggled early to control the kickoffs, which put us under all sorts of pressure. Gaffie du Toit converted that into points via two penalties and raging bull AJ Venter and raging girafee (can girafee's rage?!?) Albert van de Berg combined down the touch line to run in a great try to Venter. Missing the tackle on big Al was the first of many mistakes that Ben Blair would make.
The blood pressure went down a bit when we managed to put together some phases inside the Sharks half though, and Daryl Gibson skipped through to score a nice try for the Crusaders.
Momentum hadn't swung our way though, as Gaffie slotted a couple more penalties to stretch the lead out to 12 again (19-7).
Marshall closed the gap up again though when he scored from a rare sniping run around the base of the ruck and stepped out of a couple of tackles to score under the bar. It was a great piece of individual play, one that used to be the trademark of his game. Why doesn't he do it more?
Anyway that closed the Sharks lead up to 5, but it wasn't the end of the first half-scoring as the Crusaders failed to control the kickoff again and the Sharks rumbled play up into the Crusaders 22 and forced an error from the Crusaders defence (not sure if it was Blair, but most likely!) which resulted in a great attacking scrum for the Sharks.
From this scrum Sharks No. 8 Brad McLeod-Henderson scored a try, that Justin Marshall swears he would have stopped if ref Peter Marshall hadn't impeded him on defence. Marshall has since gone on to claim that the video ref rules really need to be able to be called in for situations like this that lead up to a try being scored (rather than just things that happen in the in goal). While he may have a point I can't believe that the video ref would award any favour to Marshall in this case.
Sure the ref impeded his field of view but if Marshall had made more of an effort to go around the ref and chase the attacking player rather than grabbing the ref and holding on to his jersey (obviously in a effort to prove he was impeded) then he might have actually been able to tackle the man. Sorry Justin, based on the replays I saw you tried to milk the situation and the ref, quite rightly, wasn't having any of it. Just as well it didn't cost us the game I guess!
Anyway, this gave the Sharks a much deserved 26-14 lead at the half.
SG and I both expected Blair to get subbed almost immediately in the second half, as he was obviously having a "Barry Crocker". As well as missing a few tackles he was also guilty of running away from his support and getting isolated with the ball on a couple of occasions, and when he wasn't doing that he was very tentative at bringing the ball back, seeming to be in too minds on whether to run it at the defensive line or pass it, and changing his mind at the last moment without informing any of his team mates!
Even worse it was starting to rub off on the impressionable Vunibaka too, who shown some off the signs of apprehension and tentativeness in defensive situations that he seemed to have shaken off so far this season.
To Robbie's credit Blair got to play the full 80 and rewarded his coaches loyalty with two tries (including the match tying charge down and regather in the Sharks in goal) that turned the game.
The second half was even more exciting than the first (for supporters of either side), with both teams exchanging a try and a conversion in the first 20 minutes to give the Sharks a 10 point lead (34-24) at the point when super-sub Mehrts came on for Daryl Gibson (who had a strong game, but had a nasty cut on his ear which no doubt had something to do with his substitution).
The Sharks didn't score again, as Caleb Malph's 50m kick return set up Blair's first try, and then the Crusaders pressured inside the Sharks 22 which resulted in Blair's second after the charge down and regather of Terblanche's desperation clearance kick.
This tied the scores at 34 all, and then Mehrts gave the Crusaders their first lead, and the win with a tough 40m penalty with 3 minutes to go.
A definite "get out of jail" win, but the type that this group of players have managed to pull off numerous times in recent years (either in Super12 or NPC), so not altogether unexpected. What I didn't expect was to get the 5 points from the game, which is fantastic and puts us comfortably on the top of the table with 8 from 8. Awesome.
The Sharks certainly look a whole lot better than the team that toured NZ and AUS though, and I expect that they will be too good for the Reds next week, esp. if Flatley is out.
As for the Crusaders...bring on the Cats, Canes and Tahs!