Durban — The first match of the final round of the United Rugby Championship kicked off in pouring rain yet the sun was shining. An African idiom says that means there is a monkey’s wedding and a Lion’s funeral but in Belfast, it was the Sharks that were ultimately buried 24-21 by Ulster.
A home quarter-final was riding on the outcome of this match and while the Sharks were visiting one of the most inhospitable grounds in the URC, the Kingspan Stadium where 20 000 Ulstermen roar on their team in the most compact of arenas, the feeling was that the Sharks had the forwards to silence the crowd and blunt Ulster’s attack.
But for the first time in ages, the Sharks did not have dominance in the set pieces and the failure to generate momentum from that platform was exacerbated by Ulster’s dominance at the breakdown.
It meant the Sharks battled to get penetration while when Ulster had possession they were able to stress the Sharks’ defence by attacking space out wide where the organisation was found wanting.
After a very even opening 15 minutes the home side broke the deadlock when scrumhalf John Cooney kicked a penalty from in front of the posts when the Sharks went offside, and ten minutes later another penalty conceded by the Sharks in their 22 led to the opening try — Ulster kicked to the corner and then the ball was worked out to fullback Mike Lowry for the try. The conversion made it 10-0 and that would be the score at the break.
The Sharks needed to score first in the second half but after just three minutes, inside centre Stuart McCloskey handed off Marius Louw and Aphelele Fassi for a try next to the posts. It was abysmal defending and at 17-0, the Sharks were in trouble.
They rallied in the middle period of the second half and while attack after attack perished on a sound Ulster defensive wall, there was eventually a well-taken breakthrough by replacement prop Ntuthuko Mchunu when he took a quick tap penalty and barrelled over.
At 17-10 with a quarter of the match to go, the Sharks were in with a shout but Ulster instantly replied with a superb backline try that was launched deep in their half and finished off by outside centre James Hume.
The 17-point gap was restored and while the Sharks valiantly attempted to get back in the game, they only managed to score with three minutes remaining when Louw well finished off a break by replacement scrumhalf Grant Williams, and what a pity it came so late because there was just enough time for Williams to score a blistering 80m try and Boeta Chamberlain’s conversion left them three tantalising points short.
Ulster 24 — Tries: Mike Lowry, Stuart McCloskey, James Hume. Penalties: John Cooney. Conversions: Cooney (3).
Sharks 21 — Tries: Ntuthuko Mchunu, Marius Louw, Grant Williams. Conversions: Curwin Bosch, Boeta Chamberlain (2).