Cape Town – It was only fitting that Springbok powerhouse Eben Etzebeth was the man to score the bonus-point try as the Sharks finally broke their United Rugby Championship duck with a comprehensive 69-14 victory over the Dragons at Kings Park on Saturday night.
Coach John Plumtree would have been a relieved man at the final whistle after his team ended a five-game losing start to the season by scoring 10 tries.
Many Durbanites would’ve gone to the stadium with some trepidation after the Sharks somehow found a way to lose 13-12 to Connacht last week.
But those worries were removed by a welcome triumph on Saturday night, even though it was a far from a perfect performance.
This time around, the Sharks played with greater conviction than they have all season long, with the forwards in particular stepping up their physicality significantly.
Of course, it was double World Cup-winning Bok lock Etzebeth who led the way. The big No 4 was a handful in those close-combat carries, chased box-kicks like a wing and tackled like a loose forward.
He set the tone for a dominant display by the Sharks pack, where the front row of Ntuthuko Mchunu, Fez Mbatha and Coenie Oosthuizen extinguished any fire that might have been present in the Dragons scrum as they earned several penalties – eventually leading to visiting tighthead Chris Coleman receiving a yellow card for repeated infringements.
The likes of Bok stars Lukhanyo Am and Makazole Mapimpi pulled off some classy touches too, but the Sharks were far from polished on attack.
The home fans, though, had reason to celebrate the first try of the night when flank James Venter burst upfield, before scrumhalf Jaden Hendrikse’s clever basketball pass to Curwin Bosch saw the flyhalf fling it wide to fullback Aphelele Fassi to dot down.
The Sharks seemed to play with more freedom with ball-in-hand, and despite Francois Venter being held up over the line, the second five-pointer arrived in the 21st minute when dynamic loosehead prop Mchunu put in a strong run, and then pulled off a superb offload for Mapimpi to score.
The Welsh visitors didn’t give up, and managed to get onto the scoreboard when scrumhalf Dane Blacker finished after fullback Cai Evans made the initial incursion.
Following Coleman’s yellow card just before halftime, Werner Kok showed great composure to grab a Hendrikse flip pass inside off a five-metre lineout.
The Sharks weren’t home and dry yet with a 20-7 halftime lead, and Plumtree would’ve hoped that his players would stay cool under pressure in the second half to close out the victory.
But the former All Blacks assistant would have been delighted to see his forwards continuing to overwhelm the Dragons, and the magical moment came in the 48th minute when a brilliant quick tap penalty from Mapimpi around the 22m line saw the No 11 put Etzebeth away down the left for the bonus-point fourth try.
The victory was secured at 27-7, but the more important aspect was the fact that the hosts didn’t relax at that point.
They actually appeared to gain in confidence the longer the game wore on, and they started to play some sparkling rugby in the last 25 minutes.
Two more World Cup Springboks in prop Ox Nche and scrumhalf Grant Williams aided that cause, with Williams especially adding some zip to the attack to complement the organised display from starting No 9 Hendrikse.
The Sharks added six more tries, including a brace for Williams, to entertain their loyal fans and bring their season back on track ahead of next Saturday’s encounter against the Bulls at Loftus Versfeld.
Sharks 69 – Tries: Aphelele Fassi (2), Makazole Mapimpi, Werner Kok, Eben Etzebeth, Grant Williams (2), Phepsi Buthelezi, Jeandré Labuschagne, Lukhanyo Am. Conversions: Curwin Bosch (5), Boeta Chamberlain (3). Penalty: Bosch (1).
Dragons 14 – Tries: Dane Blacker, Rio Dyer. Conversions: Cai Evans (1), Rhodri Williams (1).