The Sharks produced one of the Vodacom Super Rugby performances of the season as they powered to a 30-17 win over the Reds in Brisbane that books them a semifinal meeting with the Stormers in Cape Town next Saturday.
The three-try-to-one triumph, which featured periods of brilliant attacking as well as brave, committed defence, means that the final of this year’s competition will be a showdown between South Africa and New Zealand.
The Crusaders will travel to Hamilton for Friday’s first semifinal, and the winner will then wait for Saturday’s result before knowing whether they have to travel to South Africa to face the Stormers or stay at home and host the Sharks.
The amount of travelling they will need to do still makes them a long shot for the trophy – they can beat the Stormers but travelling back to New Zealand may be a bridge too far – but regardless of what happens from here this must rank as one of the great Sharks victories.
It rivals the win Gary Teichmann’s team achieved in the 1996 Super 12 semifinal against these same opponents in Brisbane.
The Reds started as favourites by virtue of the statistics that are loaded so heavily in favour of home teams in play-off games in the history of the Sanzar regional competition, but after an initial period of five minutes where the hosts were in Sharks territory, there always looked like being only one winner.
As has been the case for much of the past two months, during which the Sharks have built up momentum and attained awesome form, it was the quality of the Durban team’s running and offloading that set them apart.
They do it so much better than any other South African team, and it was this sphere of the game, coupled with their ability to change direction and make split-second decisions, that accounted for their first two tries.
The first time the Sharks properly got their hands on the ball was in the seventh minute, but they showed their intent by sweeping upfield and onto the attack from inside their own half.
Jannie du Plessis had a little burst from about eight metres out and the Sharks looked dangerous, but referee Jonathan Kaplan had his hand out signifying penalty advantage, and when the move was finally halted just metres short, Frederic Michalak made no mistake with the kick to put his team into a 3-0 lead.
Three minutes later the Sharks scored the first try, perhaps a trifle luckily some would say, as Michalak had missed his target with a pass, but the Sharks players were up quickly onto the ball and the pace with which it was moved to the right enabled the in-form JP Pietersen to be put in for the first try of the match off a long pass that put him into space.
STUNNED INTO SILENCE
Michalak’s conversion made it 10-0 after 12 minutes and the Brisbane crowd, normally so vocal in their support of the champion Reds, appeared stunned into silence.
The Sharks did experience a bit of luck along the way, such as when flyhalf Ben Lucas, who was already playing as a replacement for the injured Quade Cooper, was forced from the field in the 20th minute.
That forced Will Genia, normally so dangerous from scrumhalf, to shift a position out, which was ironically what he also did in the league game against these opponents in Durban in March.
But even before Lucas went off, the Sharks were well on top as they started to dominate the battle for possession and forced wide open holes in the Reds' defensive system with their running into space and offloads.
The try of the game was scored in the 23rd minute, a turnover at a breakdown being quickly run out from defence by the Sharks, with the irrepressible Pietersen and Marcell Coetzee both featuring strongly as the Sharks took play from one side of the field to the other for centre Tim Whitehead to touch down.
Michalak, who had a great game, then added a further three points with a snap drop-goal.
Jetlag looked like it might be catching up with the Sharks shortly before halftime, which was when the Reds scored their first try, and the only one that mattered (the later score by Radike Samo was after the game had already been won and lost).
It was loose-forward Scott Higginbotham who made the move up the left touchline, outflanking the Sharks' defenders, before transferring inside for Genia to score.
The Mike Harris conversion made it 20-10 at the break and knowing that the players might be starting to feel the effects of the flight east, and that the Reds were starting to get stronger, the Sharks coaches would not have been happy with the way the half ended.
And as the second half started it looked ominous, with the Reds surging upfield to force a penalty which, fortunately for the Sharks, Harris missed from long range.
Then came another Reds attack and …bang! There was scrumhalf Charl McLeod sprinting away towards the other end of the field after superbly reading the Reds' play to net an intercept try that probably sealed the match.
Had the Reds been the first to score in the second half they may well have come back to win the game, because the Sharks did look tired. But the 17-point buffer helped the Sharks dig deep during a prolonged period where the Reds camped on their line without reward.
It was great defence from the Sharks, who showed their passion for the cause by repelling wave after wave of Reds attacks near their line.
DISALLOWED TMO TRY
They had a degree of good fortune when the TMO disallowed the Reds a try that looked good (referee Kaplan just asked the wrong question), and Genia rightly lamented that missed opportunity afterwards. At 27-17, the Reds would have been back in it with a quarter of the match to go.
But the Reds' captain was also right when he said you make your own luck, and that is what the Sharks did throughout the game, and they were clearly the better team.
Indeed, the Sharks might have scored a fourth try had Meyer Bosman not tripped over his own feet metres short of the Reds' line after a breakout that started with a Lwazi Mvovo run through several tacklers just metres away from his own tryline.
The Sharks appeared to get a second wind once they knew the game was won, with Michalak making sure with the penalty that pushed his team’s score to 30 just minutes from fulltime, rendering the Reds’ final act of defiance, with Samo diving over near the posts off last move of the game, no more than a consolation score.
Reds – Tries: Will Genia, Radike Samo. Conversions: Mike Harris, Genia. Penalty: Harris.
Sharks – Tries: JP Pietersen, Paul Jordaan, Charl McLeod. Conversions: Frederic Michalak (3). Penalties: Michalak (2). Drop Goal: Michalak.