The Sharks were clinical and dominant in the first half of their opening United Rugby Championship match against Zebre in Parma, racing into a 28-3 lead after half-an-hour, but the last 45 minutes saw them display the opposite characteristics as they were fortunate to escape with a 42-37 win.
Zebre looked to have snatched a stunning comeback victory in the 77th minute when replacement wing Jacopo Trulla went over the line for the second time in two minutes, slickly finishing brilliant counter-attacks, but the officials spotted an offence on the opposite side of the field that gave the Sharks a massive reprieve.
Replacement prop Juan Manuel Pitanari had taken out Werner Kok off the ball as he chased the kickoff, and instead of potentially trailing 41-39 in the dying stages, flyhalf Boeta Chamberlain was able to kick a penalty that put the Sharks 42-34 up.
Skilful Zebre flyhalf Tiff Eden then kicked a penalty at the other end in the final minute to ensure the home side at least took home two well-deserved bonus points.
Having produced such compelling rugby in the first half, dominant forwards laying the platform and the backline rushing up in sturdy defence, it was inexplicable that the Sharks were so stuck on the back foot in the second half. The vagaries of momentum will be blamed, but there is no doubt the visitors surrendered the initiative.
The early momentum was squarely the Sharks’ as Zebre made a wild start to the game, conceding two yellow cards, one of which could easily have been a red, and a number of penalties.
Impressed independent observers
Through good, cohesive team play, the Sharks capitalised and they had scored four tries by the 27th minute, two by forwards and two by backs, which summed up the balance in their game, which would certainly have impressed independent observers.
Rohan Janse van Rensburg, playing at outside centre, looks a fine acquisition by the Sharks. He carried strongly, along with prop Thomas du Toit, for the opening try by lock Reniel Hugo, and he grabbed the fourth try with a powerful finish after his midfield partner Ben Tapuai had sent Chamberlain, who had a good game at flyhalf, slicing through with a slick inside ball.
But Zebre again made a game of it in the second half, their comeback starting in first-half injury time as they finally controlled the ball long enough to create some pressure.
The Sharks briefly managed to break free of Zebre’s second-half dominance as the arrival of replacement tighthead prop Carlu Sadie led to a penalty at his first scrum by Chamberlain, and then big front-foot ball at the second that saw flank James Venter score.
But the Sharks defence allowed the dangerous Zebre runners far too much time and space on the ball in the second half.
Zebre: Tries – Luca Bigi, Simone Gesi, Taina Fox-Matamua, Gabriele Venditti, Jacopo Trulla. Conversions – Tiff Eden (3). Penalties – Eden (2).
Sharks: Tries – Reniel Hugo, Kerron van Vuuren, Werner Kok, Rohan Janse van Rensburg, James Venter. Conversions – Boeta Chamberlain (4). Penalties – Chamberlain (3).