Highlanders threaten but Sharks prevail

South Africa’s Sharks overcame an 11-point deficit after 20 minutes to beat the Otago Highlanders 19-17 Friday and maintain their unbeaten record through nine rounds of rugby’s Super 14.

Twelfth-placed Otago threatened one of the bigger upsets of the season when they scored early tries to winger Fetu’u Vainikolo and prop Clint Newland to lead the second-placed Sharks 14-3.

They were still ahead, 17-11, at half-time but the Durban-based Sharks scored the only points of the second period—a try to powerful number eight Ryan Kankowski and a long-range penalty to Francois Steyn.

“We dominated the whole game but we went off the boil and let them back into it, especially in the last 10 minutes,” Sharks captain Johan Muller said.

Otago had advantages of territory and possession throughout the match, but poor handling and some poor tactics consigned them to their seventh loss of the season, their fifth by fewer than seven points.

“We showed tonight we’re not that far off the pace,” Highlanders captain Craig Newby said. “It’s our fifth close loss, but a bit of a downer after last week’s high.”

Vainikolo nabbed his fifth try of the season to open the scoring in the eighth minute, driving through one tackle, rising to his feet and forcing his way over the line after a midfield break by fullback Paul Williams.

He had a hand in Otago’s second try 12 minutes later, making a strong run toward the right touchline, drawing the defence wide and then sending the ball infield where Newby, then Newland drove to the line.

Flyhalf James Wilson converted both tries and added a 38th-minute penalty to complete Otago’s first-half scoring.

The Sharks, who struggled to find their combination under early pressure, eventually fought back with a try to flanker Jaques Botes and two penalties to Ruan Pienaar.

They then made a perfect start to the second half, scoring after only a minute when Kankowski darted through a line-out and intercepted a pass from halfback Toby Morland, dashing 45m to score.

Pienaar missed the conversion and a subsequent penalty that could have given the Sharks the lead and they had to wait until the 57th minute, when Steyn goaled from 55m, to hit the front for the first time.

Both sides had chances to score in the last quarter but poor goal kicking and some loose attacking play meant Steyn’s goal was the last points of the game.—Sapa-AP

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