The Cell C Sharks produced the biggest 40 minutes of their season in the second half to beat the Toyota Cheetahs 26-10 at Growthpoint Kings Park on Saturday and stay ahead of the Bulls in the race for the Vodacom SuperRugby playoffs.
With the Bulls having secured a bonus-point win over the Sunwolves in the previous game, the Sharks were in desperate need of a victory to stay ahead in the race for the third South African qualification place.
The scrum was the biggest talking point of the game, with the Sharks taking an absolute hiding in that department in the first half.
The frustrations boiled over in the 16th minute as the Sharks lost their captain, Tendai Mtawarira, for 10 minutes, as he was yellow-carded for slapping a Cheetahs player.
The Cheetahs then destroyed the Sharks in a series of scrums, Coenie Oosthuizen being the chief culprit at tighthead for the Sharks, and the visitors were unfortunate not to be awarded a penalty try.
But the Cheetahs did, however, manage to get the opening try a few minutes later as wing Raymond Rhule, with space on the outside, stood up fullback Rhyno Smith and dotted down.
With flyhalf Fred Zeilinga’s conversion, the Cheetahs led 7-0, but Sharks flyhalf Garth April cut the deficit to 3-7 with a penalty for a high tackle just two minutes later.
With the Cheetahs scrum being so dominant, they would have expected more reward from that set-piece, but Sharks scrumhalf Michael Claassens is a canny campaigner and he delayed the put-ins as long as he could. He fooled referee Stuart Berry in the 35th minute, with the Sharks being awarded a free kick for an early engage by the Cheetahs, and it was a pivotal moment as the home side turned a first-half onslaught that saw them barely hanging on into a halftime lead.
Eighthman Philip van der Walt took a quick tap and a long pass out wide from the ruck found JP Pietersen, who cut inside for a top-class power-finish, April’s conversion giving the Sharks a scarcely deserved 10-7 halftime lead.
The Sharks did not make a good start to the second half though as Van der Walt took the kickoff but then dropped the ball, starting a chain reaction that ended with hooker Franco Marais being caught on the wrong side of the ruck and Zeilinga kicking a penalty to level the scores.
But Lourens Adriaanse proved once again that he is like a potent chemical when it comes to scrum time, always causing a reaction, and his introduction as a replacement for Oosthuizen then totally turned around that set-piece.
His first two scrums led to a turnover in the feed and then a penalty, which April kicked. The young flyhalf is known for his dazzling attacking skills, but he was called on to make some vital kicks on Saturday and he was outstanding off the tee, succeeding with all five of his kicks at goal, including two penalties from scrums which put the Sharks 16-10 up.
The Cheetahs must have been surprised to be down at that stage, and they were even more bemused when referee Berry called advantage over on a penalty when, to be fair, the Cheetahs had taken the ball through numerous phases but had not made much ground, and Stefan Ungerer, brought on at scrumhalf just minutes earlier, pounced on an intercept try and couldn’t believe his luck when he went over for the try.
April succeeded with yet another kick to convert (23-10), and a multitude of handling errors by the Cheetahs then allowed the Sharks to seize control.
The Sharks, who have really turned their defence around since the arrival of specialist coach Omar Mouneimne, continued to harangue the Cheetahs and, after centre Andre Esterhuizen had put in a big tackle and stripped the ball off Rhule, followed by Pietersen kicking ahead, flank Keegan Daniel just had to gather the ball and dive over the line, but he knocked on.
But the Sharks regained possession at the lineout, rumbled the driving maul forward and earned another penalty by April to complete the scoring.
And so the final round of fixtures next weekend, with the Sharks hosting the Sunwolves and the Bulls travelling to the Cheetahs, will decide who the third South African franchise in the playoffs will be.
Cell C Sharks – Tries: JP Pietersen, Stefan Ungerer. Conversions: Garth April (2). Penalties: April (4).
Toyota Cheetahs – Try: Raymond Rhule. Conversion: Fred Zeilinga. Penalty: Zeilinga.