The Cell C Sharks operated at about 60 percent of what will be required from next week as they stuttered to a 40-29 win over the Sunwolves at Growthpoint Kings Park in Durban on Friday night to seal their place in the Vodacom SuperRugby playoffs.
They were far from the well-oiled machine coach Gary Gold wanted them to be in their last league game before the knockouts and, for much of the match the bottom-placed Sunwolves actually had the scent of a massive upset win in their nostrils.
The Sharks only led 21-19 at halftime and the advantage was only 28-22 going into the last 10 minutes, before flyhalf Garth April finally made an impact by scoring himself and setting up a first SuperRugby try for replacement fullback Curwin Bosch.
While the Sharks held on to the ball and used their forwards to lay the platform, they looked good and two tries in the first seven minutes came after the pack had driven well.
Tighthead prop Coenie Oosthuizen barrelled over for the opening try and then scrumhalf Stefan Ungerer ran off the base of a maul, centre Andre Esterhuizen stepped outside his marker and went straight through the gap, allowing wing Lwazi Mvovo to have an easy run-in for the second try.
But the Sunwolves then began dominating possession as the Sharks became loose and error-prone. Although they initially struggled to breach the staunch Sharks defence, with nearly 70% of the ball the visitors were able to bend and stretch it with clever play and eventually break through.
Their first try came from a nifty set-piece move as flank Liaki Moli soared high at the back of a split lineout and then passed the ball straight to scrumhalf Kaito Shigeno, who ran straight through the gap to score untouched.
Flyhalf Yu Tamura converted and then, in the 21st minute, he put a clever chip over the defensive line. It was a tricky bouncing ball for fullback Rhyno Smith, but he gathered well and had seen the space, launching a great counter-attack, good hands by forwards and backs getting the ball to captain JP Pietersen, who beat the last man to score the Sharks’ third try.
But battering ram centre Mifiposeti Paea then barged his way over for a try and completed a top-class individual first-half performance by making a fantastic break from his own 22, lock Faatiga Lemalu dotting down from close range after several phases to ensure the Sharks only took a two-point lead into the interval.
The Sharks started the second half like a team with a renewed purpose as Oosthuizen produced a bullocking run and a fabulous offload, hooker Chiliboy Ralepelle providing a slick ball out wide and Esterhuizen a determined finish.
April continued a great run of successful kicks at goal with the conversion to give the Sharks a 28-19 lead, but a Tamura penalty cut that to 28-22 on the hour.
The Sharks made life hard for themselves by not looking after the ball at the breakdown and an anxious last 10 minutes awaited the Kings Park faithful before April made up for all his defensive failings with two moments of magic.
Outside centre Pietersen played a big role in April’s try with a lovely run after the flyhalf’s initial dart before a superb offload back to April, who rode a tackle to get over the line.
April’s precise chip over the top set up Bosch for his try, which would have secured a bonus point for the Sharks were it not for the reaction from the Sunwolves.
April had a kick charged down, leading to a loose ball which went to replacement scrumhalf Yuki Yatomi, who put the Sunwolves on attack with a lovely break, Paea finishing off to take the bonus point away.
But a Sharks team that lacked spark and accuracy scarcely deserved anything more than a scrappy victory.
Sharks: Tries – Coenie Oosthuizen, Lwazi Mvovo, JP Pietersen, Andre Esterhuizen, Garth April, Curwin Bosch. Conversions –April (5).
Sunwolves: Tries – Kaito Shigeno, Mifiposeti Paea (2), Faatiga Lemalu. Conversions – Yu Tamura (3). Penalty – Tamura.