It spoke volumes that even the ever positive Mark Hammett struggled to put a convincingly positive spin on the Hurricanes' scrummaging woes.
The Hurricanes' scrum was a lemon in Durban and the coach has less than a week to fix it or he'll likely leave Cape Town with another sour Super Rugby defeat against the Stormers.
The 27-9 firstup loss to the Sharks isn't terminal and the Hurricanes showed encouraging grit in defence to stay in the match to the point they had a chance with 15 minutes to play.
However, that should not gloss over the worrying signs of a first-half set-piece meltdown that negated what was an otherwise solid team effort.
Halfback TJ Perenara said the grunting of the tight five in the changing room suggested body height had been fingered for a horror half-hour that saw the Sharks dismantle their opposites in alarming fashion on numerous occasions.
Hammett suggested adjusting to the South African officials' interpretations at scrum time, and too big a gap at the bind and engagement, were to blame for the dire start.
"They were managing to hold us on the bind and then follow it through. When we eventually managed to close the gap we started to go all right," he said. "One of the frustrating things was in those last 20 minutes we actually started dominating their scrum, but didn't get the reward they did."
Jannie du Plessis and Tendai Mtawarira will choke on their biltong if they read the words "Hurricanes" and "dominating" in the same sentence today.
But Hammett's right that the Hurricanes did improve, notably so when big loosehead prop John Schwalger and hooker Motu Matu'u entered the fray.
It was left to captain Conrad Smith to provide the most accurate and blunt assessment of the match.
"It was one of those games where you feel like you are playing some pretty good footy and you might even have the better of them, but if you can't set piece you aren't going to score points and that's how it turned out," he said.
"The set piece will be a big work-on. We prepared really well for this game, but like I said you have to do the first things right and we just let ourselves down there."
It's too early for panic stations. The Sharks have a formidable pack, while the Stormers' 34-10 away loss to the Lions suggests they are not the side they once were.
But perhaps Jeffery Toomaga-Allen might be better suited to an impact role against South African sides with Schwalger weathering the early storm. The pity is that the scrum's woes overshadowed a gritty defensive effort led by openside Jack Lam and rawboned No 8 Blade Thomson that saw the Sharks score only one first-half try to big blindside Willem Alberts for a 10-6 halftime lead.
"The defence is something we're pretty keen on changing our identity around and soaking up a lot of pressure. We did in that first half and probably gave away only four penalties," Hammett said. "I think Hurricanes teams of the past may have given a lot more away."
Lam saved his side's bacon on several occasions with crucial turnovers, while fullback Marty Banks had a strong debut.
Thomson, in only his second Super Rugby match, kept cool behind a back-pedalling scrum and formed a bright combination with Perenara.
With their halfback upping the tempo the Hurricanes looked good on the counter-attack and a chance at 16-9 down before Banks' pass was intercepted by wing Lwazi Mvovo in the 65th minute.
Replacement flanker Adam Hill didn't help his side's cause when he was sinbinned for spearing Mvovo during a clumsy ruck clearance to sit out the final 10 minutes, Sharks first five-eighth Patrick Lambie adding his fourth and fifth penalties to inflate the scoreline.
"We came up against a pretty good Sharks team with a game behind them so it was always going to be hard," Smith said. "We backed ourselves to win this game and we'll do the same next week and go home with one win."
- The Dominion Post
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