The Cell C Sharks relied on a strong forward showing and the goal-kicking boot of Frans Steyn to edge a plucky Highlanders outfit at Kings Park yesterday, thus setting up a Vodacom Super Rugby semi-final clash against the Crusaders in Christchurch. Each side scored three tries in a 31-27 win for the home side.
The Sharks started like a team hell bent on proving a point; with the pack on fire and the Highlanders destroyed at forward, the home side had established a 10-0 lead before the spectators had really settled into their seats; an early Frans Steyn penalty after a scrum infringement was followed by a copybook rolling maul try to Marcell Coetzee, again converted by the big flyhalf. The Sharks continued to surge forward and were twice more denied just inches from the line, the second time, referee Steve Walsh had to go upstairs to deny Jannie du Plessis a career first try at this level, with the TMO discerning a double movement in his surge over the whitewash.
Ironically, that call seemed to galvanise the visitors who despite living off scraps at set piece time, nonetheless started to play more expansively and found plenty of room behind the charging Sharks backs, thanks to deft kicks from flyhalf Lima Sopoaga. With Cobus Reinach and SP Marais both at times guilty of some aimless play within their own 22, the Sharks’ soon conceded a penalty that brought the visitors back within a score, before Steyn struck again to restore the 10-point gap minutes later. At 16-3 ahead after a bout half an hour, the Sharks would have felt that they’d not had enough reward for their up-front supremacy.
Thereafter followed a purple patch from the Highlanders that turned the contest on its head; first Malakai Fekitoa scored one of his typical “from nowhere to everywhere” tries to bring his team within three of their hosts; just before half time the Sharks failure to clear again gifted Ben Smith possession in his 22 and the 80-meter interplay that followed left the crowd breathless – and prop Kane Hames a try to the good as his team hit the lead going into the shed.
Sopoaga – who had the better of the individual flyhalf duel on the day – extended the lead to seven shortly after the break, before Bismarck du Plessis and his troops started the fightback. It was the skipper himself who scored the try that turned the tide; after the Sharks had obliterated the shaky Highlanders scrum on their own 5m line, a set of fumbles in-goal saw the big hooker dive on the ball to secure seven points, and a tied-up scoreline. Man of the match du Plessis was the hero again moments later, freeing up the ball and finding the speeding Tonderai Chavanga with a pinpoint pass not five minutes later. The Zimbabwean flier needed no second invitation and galloped 40m to score the try that put the Sharks back in front, 25-20.
Steyn’s missed conversion proved costly, though and while many may have expected the Highlanders to roll over and play dead after a 12-point blitz from the home side, it was the visitors who struck back, taking the lead through a Phil Burleigh try. The Sharks absorbed the pressure, weathered the storm and forced their way back into Highlanders territory, though, with another strong scrum forcing the penalty that put them ahead once more, 28-27 with minutes to play. Steyn struck again just before the end to seal a 4-point result, although one which was never as comfortable as you’d think it should have been, given the Sharks’ dominance in so many areas of the play.
Scores: Sharks (31): Tries Marcell Coetzee, Bismarck du Plessis, Tonderai Chavanga. Conversions Frans Steyn (2). Penalties Steyn (4).
Highlanders (27): Tries Malakai Fekitoa, Kane Hames, Phil Burleigh. Conversions Lima Sopoaga (3). Penalties Lima Sopoaga (2).