The Crusaders came from behind to clinch a deserved 19-14 win over the Sharks in an entertaining contest in Durban.
For some time it looked as though the Crusaders would leave Durban without the win, despite playing all the rugby and racking up a remarkable number of phases in attack. Kieran Read came up with the crucial try with eight minutes left.
Eventually that persistence in attack ended in three tries, and their points tally would have been more had Richie Mo’unga not missed 11 points off the kicking tee.
Through the back three of Nemani Nadolo, who finished with a try and an assist, plus David Havili and Johnny McNicholl, the Crusaders had willing runners who always looked capable of breaking the line.
Offering nothing in attack the Sharks outstanding defence proved to be their source of points, as they pounced on errors from the Crusaders and turned them into tries either side of half-time by Lwazi Mvovo.
It was a heroic effort, recording over 100 tackles, but the Sharks paid the price for their inability to string together anything worthwhile on their own ball.
Dominating the first half in terms of territory and possession, the Crusaders will have been kicking themselves as both sides went into half-time tied at 7-7.
Mo’unga missed an early shot to open the scoring as his kick drifted to the right, but the Crusaders were clearly on top.
Neither side though were able to trouble the scoreboard in the first quarter. Through the power of their scrum though, the Crusaders always looked likely to cross the line first.
Nadolo unsurprisingly was the catalyst, sucking in two defenders and offloading to send over Havili for a try, converted by Mo’unga.
Struggling to get their lineout firing the Sharks then pounced on a mistake from the Crusaders through Mvovo to score against the run of play.
Shooting out of the line Mvovo picked off a loose pass and sprinted away on the angle to get away from the chasing McNicholl, with Joe Pietersen converting to tie up the scores at 7-7.
Mo’unga had another penalty chance just before the break from short-range but the young fly-half couldn’t convert, sending the two sides into the break level on points.
It was the same story after the interval for Mo’unga as he missed another shot after the Sharks were penalised for offside, and Mvovo made him pay.
Once again set up in the Sharks half, this time some poor passing from the Crusaders allowed the ball to go loose on the deck with Mvovo pouncing again, scooping up the ball and racing away to put the hosts into the lead for the first time at 14-7 after Pietersen’s conversion.
Having to soak up that frustration the Crusaders lost their composure when Havili was yellow carded for an off-the-ball charge on Andre Esterhuizen.
Going down to 14 men might have sent some sides into their shell but instead the Crusaders let rip with an attacking move from deep, which was finished off by Nadolo in the corner.
The Fiji star was hauled down short of the line but reached out to make enough contact with the whitewash for the try to be awarded following confirmation by the TMO.
Straight from the restart the Crusaders thought they were in again after Kieran Fonotia pinned his ears back and sprinted down the touchline before passing inside to McNicholl to score. Replays however showed that Fonotia’s foot had grazed the touchline, ruling out the score.
Back to 15 men the Sharks defence continued to frustrate the Crusaders despite some impressive handling by the visitors as they chased down the lead.
Almost beyond belief it looked as though the Sharks had another try out of nothing, hacking upfield with Willie le Roux scoring, before the TMO confirmed that he was ahead of the kicker and therefore offside.
At last the Crusaders were rewarded for their work-rate in the 72nd minute as the Sharks defence finally buckled, Read the man to score by the posts off an Andy Ellis pass.
Now needing a try the Sharks were also left battling against the clock, failing to get in position to clinch the result.