The Sharks have kicked off their Australasian tour in style after defeating the Rebels 22-16 in a close contest tonight at AAMI Park. The win secures their spot at the top of the Super Rugby table, and silences any doubters of their inability to win overseas -- for now.
The Rebels pushed the Sharks all the way, especially towards the end of the first half when impressive play from the backline had the Sharks on the back foot.
But once again it was the ill-discipline around the rucks that cost the Rebels, with François Steyn scoring five penalty goals throughout the match.
The game started off in a shaky manner for the Rebels when Lwazi Mvovo and JP Pietersen kicked the ball into open space in the first minute. The attack was foiled by Bryce Hegarty who managed to barrel his way past both men to swat the ball out of play and give away only a penalty.
The Rebels were able to keep with their opponents physically through the first twenty minutes of the match. Once again, it was Luke Jones who lead the line and bashed his way through the brick-wall line of the Sharks.
Several chances came for the Rebels to break the line, with Mitch Inman, Scott Fuglistaller and Jason Woodward exposing the immobile Sharks forwards. Where the South Africans excel in hard-hitting and force, they lack in mobility and agility.
A sharp pass from Luke Burgess to Woodward saw the fullback beat a handful of defenders for a run of close to 50 metres, which ended in a penalty for the Rebels and the first score of the game.
Four penalties later and the scores where at 6-9 in favour of the Sharks midway through the first half.
The game suddenly opened up in the 30th minute when several Burgess passes allowed the Rebels to split the gaps and open up the Sharks. Tom English, Colby Fainga’a and Shota Horie had several chances at scoring a try, but the bullocking Sharks defence held them up.
A loose ball at the ruck from the Rebels allowed the Sharks to pounce on the opportunity and counter through Mvovo, Pietersen and Willem Alberts. The Rebels defence flooded back well and apprehended the foray, conceding merely another penalty. It was brilliant rugby to watch, but anti-climatic that no tries were scored by the end of it.
By the end of the half, both teams had seen several opportunities to try, but it was the Rebels who were controlling the game overall with the vast majority of possession. The game was played mostly in Sharks territory, with the Rebels putting them on the back foot, especially at the end of the half.
The few attacks the Sharks had ended in a penalty against the Rebels, hence the 6-15 deficit at the half.
The start of the second was the opposite to the first, with the Sharks doing all the attacking in the Rebels half. Melbourne’s defence showed their strength again by keeping the Sharks at bay, while Mitch Inman and Male Sau were the only players who seemed to turn up after the break with both men going for cannoning runs, but no other players supporting for the offload.
Aside from a Woodward penalty, the match slowed down tremendously until the 63rd minute when a poor Nic Stirzaker pass -- who replaced Luke Burgess at halftime -- bounced off the shoulder of Fuglistaller and was turned over to the Sharks. Mvovo stormed up the flank with blistering speed and handed it off to Pietersen to score the first try of the game. 9-22 with a quarter of the match left.
A slow build up play from the Rebels with ten minutes to go got them close to the try-line several times -- somewhere they hadn’t been for the majority of the second half -- with replacement prop Max Lahiff coming very close.
A penalty to the Rebels was tapped quickly by Hegarty and dished off to Pat Leafa who caught the Sharks defence unaware to score the Rebels first try of the game.
With ten minutes to go, the pressure was on the Rebels to score a converted try and claim a one-point win, but fumbles and turnovers killed their opportunities with time running out.
One last roll of the dice came with a minute left, and it wasn’t until after the siren that the Rebels got within their own 22. Not choosing to play any risky long passes or offloads -- which they had hurt themselves with in the lead-up -- Melbourne inched their way closer to the line, but a penalty for not releasing the ball in the ruck ended the game before they could score.
Despite having 63% of possession and 224 more metres gained than their opponents the Rebels were decimated in the second half due to poor handling of the ball, and Nic Stirzaker coming on in place of Luke Burgess meant the Rebels had very little attacking threat to their play with their set-up passes.
Interestingly, the Sharks only scored one try in this win, meaning they have accumulated only four tries from their past four matches.
The win sees the Sharks extend their lead at the top of the table to a five-point gap against the Brumbies, while a bonus point for the Rebels puts them one win behind the Bulls in 11th with one less game played.
The Sharks continue their Australasian tour next week when they travel to Canberra to take on the Brumbies, while the Rebels will host the Hurricanes at AAMI Park.
HAVE YOUR SAY: What do the Rebels need to improve on in preparation for next week? Are the Sharks the real deal?
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