The Sharks’ magnificent Vodacom Super Rugby run continued in Cape Town on Saturday when they qualified for their fourth final by beating the DHL Stormers in Cape Town.
The men from KwaZulu-Natal have now won eight from their last nine matches, including last weekend’s qualifier over the Reds in Brisbane and yesterday’s semi-final victory by 26-19 over the DHL Stormers in Cape Town.
Because of the travel factor, many experts thought The Sharks would struggle against the South African Conference winners and the team that finished top of the log. That was not the case though as the DHL Stormers could not match the physical intensity of the KwaZulu-Natalians.
Keegan Daniel and his team did not stray from their winning recipe of the past month and will now have an opportunity to win their first-ever Vodacom Super Rugby title after The Sharks lost in the finals of 1996 (to the Blues), 2001 (to the Brumbies) and 2007 (to the Vodacom Bulls).
To lift the trophy against the Chiefs in Hamilton though, The Sharks will have to do what has only been achieved once in the history of Vodacom Super Rugby – win a final in another country. In 2000, the Crusaders travelled to Canberra where they beat the Brumbies by 20-19.
Only two teams have won finals away from home – the Crusaders also did it in 1998 (against the Blues in Auckland) and 1999 (against the Highlanders in Dunedin), while the Vodacom Bulls beat The Sharks in Durban in 2007, but in each of those matches, the final was played in the eventual winners’ home country.
In Friday’s first semi-final, the Chiefs reached only their second final when they beat the Crusaders by 20-17 in Hamilton, outscoring the seven-time champions by two tries to one.
It will be the first Vodacom Super Rugby final in New Zealand since 2008 and the first ever hosted by the Chiefs.
DHL Stormers 19 (6) The Sharks 26 (13)
For the second consecutive year the DHL Stormers stumbled in the Vodacom Super Rugby semi-final against a team travelling across the Indian Ocean when they lost by 26-19 to The Sharks at DHL Newlands in Cape Town on Saturday afternoon.
It was a massive South African derby and the forward exchanges were nothing but brutal, but one got the feeling that The Sharks’ pack played with a bit more cohesion and ultimately it was upfront where they were better than the DHL Stormers.
The Sharks were very good in the set pieces, solid on defence and sharp on the attack, while the DHL Stormers again struggled to find that extra gear when they were required to score tries.
Thanks to the platform laid by their pack, The Sharks outscored the home team by two tries to one as first Louis Ludik and later JP Pietersen went over.
Ludik’s try, shortly before the break, came after the DHL Stormers twice could not win an up and under. The Sharks right wing snatched a high ball in front of Joe Pietersen and beat a number of defenders to score under the uprights.
Following after a couple penalty goals by both teams and a drop goal by Fred Michalak for the visitors, The Sharks were leading with 13-3 at that stage. A late first-half penalty goal by Peter Grant saw the DHL Stormers close the gap at the break to 13-6.
Michalak and Grant exchanged more penalty goals before JP Pietersen’s moment of magic, midway through the second half, as he stepped inside and beat the DHL Stormers’ defence for a superb try. Michalak’s conversion saw The Sharks go ahead by 23-9 and with 20 minutes to go, it looked like the contest was over.
The DHL Stormers refused to lie down though and when Gio Aplon crossed with less than 15 minutes left in the game, following a good running line and a deft pass from Springbok captain Jean de Villiers, the home team got back to within striking distance again.
When Grant slotted his fourth penalty goal in the 72nd minute, it set up a thrilling finale, but Michalak had the final say with his second drop goal three minutes later. The DHL Stormers tried with everything they had, but they simply could not breach the Sharks’ defensive line.
It seemed like The Sharks ran out of steam a bit towards the end, with a rigorous travel schedule in the last fortnight – Durban to Johannesburg to Sydney to Brisbane to Sydney to Johannesburg to Durban to Cape Town – probably the reason, but they managed to hold out and in the end were deserved winners.
A couple more flights lie ahead for The Sharks and judging by the way they’ve been playing since the June Test break, they have a good chance to return to South Africa next weekend as the new Vodacom Super Rugby champions.
The 16 points Michalak scored were enough for him to reach 100 competition points in 2012 – he is the 13th player to reach a century of points this season.
Aplon moved up to eight tries to place him amongst the top 10 try scorers for 2012 and JP Pietersen is now on six for the season.
DHL Stormers – Try: Gio Aplon. Conversion: Peter Grant. Penalty goals: Grant (4).
The Sharks – Tries: Louis Ludik, JP Pietersen. Conversions: Fred Michalak (2). Penalty goals: Michalak (2). Drop goals: Michalak (2).