Benetton fight back to earn thrilling win against Sharks

11 May 2024 - 20:00
By Stuart Hess
Aphelele Fassi was named man of the match in the Sharks defeat against Benetton.
Image: Steve Haag/Gallo Images Aphelele Fassi was named man of the match in the Sharks defeat against Benetton.

Benetton’s true colours came shining through in a pulsating second half as they kept their playoff hopes alive in the URC with a 25-24 victory over the Sharks in Durban on Saturday. 

The Italian side dug deep into their reserves of courage, not to mention their bench, to engineer a stunning late comeback against a Sharks team that for large parts held the ascendancy both on the scoreboard and in the forward exchanges. 

After a line-out in the 78th minute, Benetton exploited space left by the absence of Sharks centre Murray Koster, who was red-carded for a reckless entry at a ruck, to send replacement flyhalf Jacob Umaga — son of Mike and nephew of Tana — flying over the try line.

His conversion gave his side a one-point lead, with the final whistle seconds later eliciting celebrations among their players and management. 

The Sharks failed to use the advantage they had with their powerful forward pack, especially in the first half, when they were dominant at the scrums. A bit more patience, and laying the groundwork with their pack may not be a glamorous approach, but by not doing so the home side allowed the Italian club to remain in touching distance.

Fullback Aphelele Fassi, who sparkled all afternoon, ran onto a beautifully weighted and timed pass from his flyhalf Siya Masuku to open the home side’s account, after they’d fallen behind to an early penalty from Leonardo Marin. 

Ox Nche added a second try later with the Sharks displaying the kind of close in control and power of their forwards that they should have maintained for the rest of the half.

Instead they tried to spread the play too early, made a number of handling errors, which allowed Benetton to get some important turnovers. 

The crucial score for them came late in the opening half, when centre Tommaso Menoncello slid through a gap left by the absence of Lukhanyo Am, who injured his ankle, to run 30 metres for a try which narrowed the Sharks lead to four points at halftime. 

The Sharks put almost as much stock in winning as they did in protecting their most important parts for the Challenge Cup final they will play in London in two weeks' time.

Besides Am, whose exit was said to be precautionary, the Sharks also replaced Eben Etzebeth midway through the first half and Vincent Koch, though the Bok prop’s injury looked a lot worse as he limped off with blood also dripping out of his right ear. 

Bongi Mbonambi, Grant Williams and later Masuku also joined them on the bench. 

Those changes certainly played a role in the lack of rhythm from the Sharks, whose inconsistent handling created self-imposed pressure.

Ironically, given the Sharks’ forward advantage in the first half, Benetton’s hooker, Gianmarco Lucchesi then scored from a driving maul to give his side the lead early in the second half. 

The Sharks responded with two tries from Werner Kok, but Benetton’s reserves and the outstanding Alessandro Izekor began to thrive as the game opened up in the final quarter. 

Koster’s red card after clashing heads with Menoncello gave Benetton the man advantage, which they used smartly allowing Umaga to deliver the coup de grace. 

They remain in the contention for a playoff spot and their win will give them added confidence ahead of their trip to Loftus next weekend.   

Scorers — 

Sharks 24 (12): Tries — Aphelele Fassi, Ox Nche, Werner Kok (2). Conversions — Siya Masuku (2).

Bennetton 25 (8): Tries — Tommaso Menoncello, Gianmarco Lucchesi, Jacob Umaga. Conversions — Leonardo Marin, Umaga. Penalties — Marin, Umaga