Sharks take two-point Super 14 lead

ROUSING START: The Sharks remained the only unbeaten team after their third successive home win, while the Cheetahs staved off the New South Wales Waratahs

AFP , SYDNEY

Mon, Feb 19, 2007 - Page 7

South Africa's Natal Sharks opened a two-point break at the top of rugby's Super 14 to continue their unbeaten run at the expense of New Zealand's Otago Highlanders this weekend.

The Sharks won their third straight home fixture 23-16 with enigmatic Springbok fullback Percy Montgomery cashing in with all the points.

The Durban franchise are now two points ahead of fellow South Africans Central Cheetahs, who staved off the New South Wales Waratahs 30-26 in Kimberley to claim a try-scoring bonus point.

It is a rousing start to the 12th edition of the southern hemisphere provincial tournament for South African teams, who usually struggle over the course of the series with the majority of their away matches in Australia and New Zealand.

Four teams, including tournament surprises Western Force, head the chasers three points behind the Sharks on nine points.

The Perth-based Force, wooden spooners in their inaugural season last year, leave South Africa after two wins in an encouraging start to the campaign under former All Blacks coach John Mitchell.

Winger Cameron Shepherd scored 25 points as the Force held on for a 30-27 win over South Africa's Northern Bulls in Pretoria on Friday.

The Auckland Blues lost their unbeaten start to the season going down 23-22 to fellow New Zealanders Wellington Hurricanes in Wellington on Saturday.

ACT Brumbies failed to score a try in their second consecutive outing with a dreary 6-3 win over the Queensland Reds in an all-Australian match in Brisbane on Saturday, in the lowest-scoring match in Super history.

South Africa's Golden Lions leapfrogged the Canterbury Crusaders on the standings with a 9-3 win over the six-time champions in Johannesburg on Saturday.

Another South African outfit, the Western Stormers, recorded their first win of the tournament, downing the Waikato Chiefs from New Zealand 21-16 in Cape Town on Friday.

Montgomery scored two tries, converted both and landed three penalties out of four attempts in the Sharks' win over the Highlanders.

The match also marked the return to Super 14 action of former Springbok captain and No. 8 Bob Skinstad, who came on with nine minutes left.

In Kimberley, the Waratahs were 19-3 down at one stage and fought their way back to trail 22-20 before skipper Juan Smith sealed it for the Cheetahs with a bonus point clinching try.

The Waratahs lost captain Phil Waugh as a result of ankle ligament problems in the opening moments of the match.

In Pretoria, Shepherd scored two of the Force's three tries in a scintillating match, which the Bulls led 17-9 at the break.

The Force had beaten the Western Stormers the previous week and had to withstand a ferocious final effort from Victor Matfield's Bulls before prevailing.

The one-point defeat to the Hurricanes was a reality check for Auckland, who were full of confidence after consecutive victories over the defending champion Crusaders and the ACT Brumbies.

Instead it was last year's beaten finalists the Hurricanes, in front of their home crowd, who had the firepower out wide and a new-look forward pack determined to create something out of nothing.

In Johannesburg, neither side scored a try but flyhalf Louis Strydom proved the difference for the Lions kicking three penalties to the Crusaders' two.

The Brumbies beat the limited Reds on the back of penalty goals from Stirling Mortlock and Julian Huxley to eclipse the previous lowest-scoring game in the provincial tournament three years ago.

Queensland hold the distinction of featuring in both the lowest-scoring games having beaten the Sharks 6-5 in Durban in April 2004 in the then Super 12 competition.

In a poor advertisement for the game, both sides bumbled and fumbled their way through 80 minutes of the Australian derby.