Sharks hold off Harlequins fightback to earn historic Champions Cup victory

There was no shortage of drama in the Champions Cup encounter between the South African newcomers the Sharks and Harlequins, with the home side running out bonus-point 39-31 victors at Kings Park in Durban. The hosts looked up against it when reduced to 13 players as the visitors cut their deficit to one point but a late try for Boeta Chamberlain secured the win.

It was a first for December rugby in South Africa and the English players, used to temperatures closer to freezing point, were assaulted by an east coast summer, the mercury hovering in the mid 30C range all week and the match played in similarly hot conditions.

A Springbok-inspired Sharks, ably led by the national captain, Siya Kolisi, and a powerful pack to back him up had the Harlequins number in the scrums and even managed a few lineout steals to disrupt the kind of quality ball they are so adept at striking from.

It has been a tumultuous couple of weeks for the Sharks with the sacking of their popular coach, Sean Everitt, after a comprehensive 35-0 defeat to Cardiff in the United Rugby Championship last month. The newly appointed director of rugby, the former Springbok sevens coach Neil Powell, has stepped into the head coach role and he faced a baptism of fire in his first outing in the new competition that now features three South African sides.

It has been a tumultuous couple of weeks for the Durban club after the sacking of their popular coach Sean Everitt mid-competition after a comprehensive 35-0 home loss to Cardiff in the United Rugby Championship in late November. The newly appointed director of rugby, the former Springbok sevens coach Neil Powell, has stepped into the head coach role and faced a baptism of fire in his first outing in the new competition which now features three South African sides.

Although Quins arrived in Durban on the back of a four-match winning streak in the Premiership, they will leave the hot coastal city knowing that they were in a gigantic tussle, a game in which, for large periods, they were chasing.

Despite the stifling condition, a Josh Bassett try inside the opening 10 minutes, when Quins exploited space out wide off an attacking lineout, showed their attacking intent and they never let up.

The visitors’ seven-pointer galvanised a strong pack effort from the Sharks, a lineout mauling try for the hooker Bongi Mbonambi, with the fly-half Curwin Bosch adding his own touchline conversion to level the score. A penalty and a second try, a scything effort through a mass of defenders from the Bok wing Makazole Mapimpi, pushed the home side’s lead to 10 points. Mapimpi soon had his second after a dominant scrum that allowed him space to attack down the blindside, before Quins scored a rolling maul try to cut the lead to 22-14 at the break.

With the Sharks starting to exert dominance at scrums, Quins found themselves under pressure and gave away a fourth try, Werner Kok scoring off a perfectly executed kick-chase battle that he won to the tryline.

The Sharks lost two front-rowers as the game went into the final quarter. First, Mbonambi was shown yellow for persistent infringing and then a head-on collision with Jack Walker led to the prop Ox Nché being shown a red card. But despite playing with 13 men, it was the home side who scored next, Bosch converting a penalty before the former Shark André Esterhuizen found plenty of space out wide.

Superior numbers counted again when Esterhuizen went over for his second try moments later and with 10 minutes left it was a six-point game, before another try in the corner made it just one point, albeit with the Sharks back up to 14 men.

With a sniff of an away victory, Harlequins would have had their morale boosted, before the home side closed out the match with a minute remaining, a wonderfully expansive attack resulting in a try under the posts for the full-back Chamberlain.

Quins brought their strong brand of attacking rugby and for one Sharks fan, the result did not play out to expectations. “Quins have some very good players in their mix and the Sharks will have to play out of their socks if they want to win this one,” said Nick Maritz. “Sorry to say, Quins by 10.”

The result was not unexpected for the visiting Harlequins fan Peter Fitzsimmons, who said: “I thought we were going to get pumped by 15 or 20 when you take United Rugby Championship performances, the conditions and home advantage, but the game went both ways and I’d have taken a one point loss in the end.”

Tabai Matson, the Harlequins head coach, said: “We have given them too many penalties and gave them too many opportunities, and good teams take them so we were frustrated when we rolled into the changing room because it was an opportunity missed. We missed our own opportunities in the game to play our game so it will be frustrating when we debrief the game.”