The NSW Waratahs have missed a chance to go to the top of the Australian Conference after suffering a disappointing 32-10 loss to the Sharks in a spiteful Super Rugby encounter in Durban.
Israel Folau’s absence at the back was telling on Saturday night, as the Waratahs failed to execute and build pressure in the first half, before ill-discipline saw the game get away from them.
The tone was set for a fiery encounter when NSW winger Rob Horne struck Sharks No.12 Francois Steyn high with a swinging arm early in the first half, and escaped with a warning from referee Mike Fraser.
Steyn retaliated with a late tackle on Kurtley Beale a short time later, where he swung the ‘Tahs playmaker to the ground like a rag doll, forcing him off the field for a short time for a concussion test.
Fraser issued a warning for the growing number of off-the-ball incidents, but the niggling continued.
It was the Waratahs who ultimately paid the price, when skipper Dave Dennis was yellow-carded for a push-and-shove at the scrum in the 48th minute – and the Sharks scored the match-turning try from the ensuing penalty to take a 19-3 lead.
At the time of Dennis’ sin-binning, Waratahs coach Michael Cheika came to the sideline to exchange words with the assistant referees and his staff, and after hooker Bismarck du Plessis crashed over, he stormed back up the tunnel to return to his coaching box.
The on-field chat continued as du Plessis got to his feet, before Waratahs stand-in captain Michael Hooper stepped in to order his players to refocus.
However, the damage was already done, and the No.1 South African franchise closed the contest out in an expert performance, capped off by a 73rd minute try to replacement Keegan Daniel.
A Bernard Foley consolation try came too little too late.
“There were plenty of opportunities there,” said Dennis.
“Discipline let us down and we couldn’t get rhythm through the game. There was too much drop ball.”
NSW arrived at the Shark Tank with a clear plan to stand up to the competition heavyweights, and succeeded, with some bone-rattling hits from the likes of Horne and Jacques Potgieter inspiring one of the most physical matches of the season.
However, the Waratahs were left to lament two missed penalty shots by five-eighth Foley in the first-half, which would have kept them within three at the break.
But more importantly, the Waratahs handed over too much ball.
NSW also struggled at the set piece, with props Benn Robinson and Sekope Kepu unable to stop the scrum from collapsing in the face of pressure from the giant Sharks front row.
The Waratahs will have fingers crossed that Wallabies fullback Folau can return for the second leg of their South African tour against the Stormers next week in Cape Town.
Hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau left the field after 26 minutes, in another potential injury concern, and Horne may have a case to answer with the judiciary.