The Sharks ended a three match losing streak by beating a 14 man Highlanders team 14-15 at the Forysth Barr Stadium in Dunedin.
The Highlanders were reduced to 14 players in the 12th minute when Jason Emery was red carded for tackling Sharks fullback Willie le Roux in the air. Le Roux landed on his neck and after reviewing replays with the TMO referee Ben O’Keefe red carded Emery.
The Highlanders opened the scoring in the second minute of the match but the Sharks soon took the lead. The Highlanders kept themselves within six points until the 60th minute when they took the lead back by scoring the only try of the match.
Garth April kicked his fifth penalty five minutes from full time to take back the lead for the Sharks who held on for the victory. The Highlanders could have stolen the result in the 78th minute but Lima Sopoaga’s drop goal went wide.
The Sharks, whose last win came against the Stormers at Newlands on March 12, had Garth April to thank as the pivot scored all 15 points through five penalties..
With former Springbok hooker Chiliboy Ralepelle making his comeback to rugby in the last 15 minutes following a two-year ban for a doping violation, the Sharks were keen on making better use of their possession, but their handling let them down on attack.
The Sharks made a nervous start when they conceded a penalty almost immediately from the kick-off, when the forwards set up a strong maul. However, referee Ben O’Keefe said that the ball wasn’t transferred back properly and ruled that it was obstruction.
And after Highlanders No 10 Lima Sopoaga slotted the three-pointer, April – making his first start after a few appearances off the bench – banged his first kickoff of the match straight into touch.
Worse was to follow in the sixth minute when scrumhalf Cobus Reinach hurt his knee following a shoulder charge from Sopoaga, which saw Michael Claassens come on.
Soon afterwards, Emery took out Willie le Roux in the air, and the Springbok fullback landed on his neck and stayed down. He eventually got up and returned from a concussion test, but referee O’Keefe had little choice but to hand Emery a straight red card.
April, though, had the desired effect on the Sharks backline as he brought some creativity and skill to release dangerous runners such as André Esterhuizen, JP Pietersen and Lwazi Mvovo.
The former Cape club player wasn’t helped by his teammates as they coughed up possession often, with April putting Esterhuizen into the gap with a classy pass, but the big centre couldn’t hold on to the ball in the tackle inside the Highlanders’ 22.
Just before halftime, the Sharks were caught napping when Sopoaga took a quick tap penalty five metres out, and lock Stephan Lewies was adjudged to have not been behind the line before making a tackle, although he pleaded with O’Keefe that he wasn’t involved in the play. But the referee was having none of it, and gave Lewies a yellow card.
The Sharks, though, showed tremendous tenacity to hold on and put in a number of desperate tackles to hold up the Highlanders twice over the line to retain a 6-3 halftime lead.
The Durbanites started the second half with good attacking intent as they held on to the ball, with April providing the zip at flyhalf and Le Roux making some timely incursions into the backline.
Replacement loose forward Jean Deysel punched the ball up a few times as well, and while they got to within five metres of the tryline, the Sharks settled for a third April penalty.
The Sharks picked up a second yellow card as the 14-man Highlanders put them under pressure with ball-in-hand, and when they got to within 10 metres of the tryline, JP Pietersen grabbed scrumhalf Aaron Smith’s foot while on the ground, and O’Keefe had had enough of the repeated infringements.
Despite April keeping the visitors’ noses in front with his fourth penalty, the Highlanders hit right back when skipper and fullback Ben Smith chipped the ball into the 22, and April was forced to hack it out under pressure.
The Highlanders recycled the ball from the resultant lineout maul, and right wing Matt Faddes slipped under Le Roux’s tackle to dot down in the corner.
But the missed touchline conversion from Sopoaga proved to be crucial in the end as the Sharks tackled for all that they were worth in the final 20 minutes.
They also put the home side under pressure on attack and defence in the closing stages, and it was from one such moment that a solid scrum five metres out from the Highlanders’ line earned the Sharks a penalty.
That placed enormous pressure on April’s 24-year-old shoulders, but he slotted the angled kick with aplomb to put Gary Gold’s team ahead with four minutes to go.
The Highlanders laid siege to the Sharks line following a brilliant line-break by powerful No 8 Liam Squire, but Aaron Smith knocked-on just five metres from the whitewash as he tried to pick up the ball from the ruck with two minutes left.
Esterhuizen almost blew it for the visitors when his left-footed clearance from his own line was charged-down and the Highlanders set up a drop-goal attempt, but Sopoaga’s effort went just wide to give the Sharks some much-needed relief.
The Highlanders play the Brumbies in Canberra next week while the Sharks play the Chiefs in New Plymouth.
Final Score Highlanders 14 (3) Sharks 15 (6)
Tries – M.Faddes
Pen – L.Sopoaga 3
Cards – J.Emery (Red card 12th min)
Pen – G.April 5
Cards – S.Lewies (36th min Yellow), JP.Pietersen (52nd min Yellow)
Referee: Ben O’Keefe
Assistant Ref 1:Mike Fraser
Assistant Ref 2:Kane McBride
TMO : Shane McDermott
1. Daniel Lienert-Brown , 2. Ash Dixon , 3. Josh Hohneck , 4. Tom Franklin , 5. Joe Wheeler , 6. Elliot Dixon , 7. Shane Christie (Co-Captain) , 8. Liam Squire , 9. Aaron Smith , 10. Lima Sopoaga , 11. Jack Wilson , 12. Jason Emery , 13. Malakai Fekitoa , 14. Matt Faddes , 15. Ben Smith (Co-Captain)
Replacements 16. Liam Coltman , 17. Craig Millar , 18. Ross Geldenhuys , 19. Alex Ainley , 20. Dan Pryor , 21. Fumiaki Tanaka , 22. Hayden Parker , 23. Patrick Osborne
15. Willie le Roux , 14. Odwa Ndungane , 13. JP Pietersen , 12. Andre Esterhuizen , 11. Lwazi Mvovo , 10. Garth April , 9. Cobus Reinach , 8. Philip van der Walt , 7. Jean-Luc du Preez , 6. Keegan Daniel , 5. Stephan Lewies , 4. Etienne Oosthuizen , 3. Coenie Oosthuizen , 2. Franco Marais , 1. Tendai Mtawarira (C)
Replacements , 16. Chiliboy Ralepelle , 17. Thomas du Toit , 18. Lourens Adriaanse , 19. Hyron Andrews , 20. Jean Deysel , 21. Michael Claassens , 22. Joe Pietersen , 23. S’bura Sithole