In a result that catapulted them back to the top of the Currie Cup log, the Sharks scored a 37-30, bonus-point win over the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein last night. The result sews up a home semi-final for the men from Durban (for the 6th year in succession) and ensures that even a few points against Griquas in Durban on Friday night will see them win the right to host the final, should they progress that far.
Not that Saturday’s result was a particularly easily-won one; the Sharks looked lethargic for large parts of the game and failed to live up to their defensive heroics against the Bulls a week earlier, falling off tackles against the hard-running Cheetahs and slumping to an early 0-10 deficit, with on fire Cheetahs winger Raymond Rhule scoring the first try. A little more fire in the belly in the second quarter saw them string together a few better phases and right wing Odwa Ndungne, staring down the barrel of bench relegation when the Boks return next week, made it as hard as he possibly could for the coaches to drop him by scoring two great tries before half time.
The first score came after some great interplay with JP Pietersen, while the second came on the opposite side, after a tap penalty saw the ball spun through numerous sets of hands. In that case, Tim Whitehead gave the scoring pass to a flying Ndungane, who cut inside to put the Sharks ahead. Leading 15-10 at the break, the Sharks put daylight between themselves and their hosts shortly after half time, with Paul Jordaan’s pace turning a seemingly-innocuous Keegan Daniel chip into a stunning try in the 42nd minute.
Meyer Bosman’s conversion saw the Sharks in control at 22-10 up, but one of their famous “sleepy periods” thereafter allowed the hosts to claw their way back to 23-25, with a try to Sarel Pretorius and a few good kicks from Nico Scheepers eating away at the deficit. Another purple patch just before the end, though, saw Jaques Botes driven over for the bonus point try, before hooker Kyle Cooper added a fifth, for good measure, after a great charge downfield from substitute prop Allan Dell. At 37-23, a real hiding was on the cards, but for that man Rhule who managed to cross for a second in the final minutes of the game to give his side a valuable bonus point. That score, which brought the Cheetahs within seven points, lifts them off the foot of the log – and above the Bulls on points difference – but there will be all to play for next week, with any of the Cheetahs, Bulls, Griquas and Western Province still in danger of a last-place finish.
For the Sharks, though, it’s a job well done and one feels that on a Bloemfontein evening when so much could have gone wrong, the team did fantastically to secure a bonus point win that has put their destiny in this competition very firmly back in their own hands.
The challenge now, of course, is for that metaphorical ball not to be dropped, as it has been on so many occasions in the past.
Cheetahs (30): Tries Raymond Rhule (2), Sarel Pretorius. Conversions Nico Shceepers (3). Penalties Scheepers (3).
Sharks (37): Tries Odwa Ndungane (2), Paul Jordaan, Jacques Botes, Kyle Cooper. Conversions Meyer Bosman (3). Penalties Bosman (3).