A well worked try to Riaan Viljoen off the last move of the match clinched the Sharks an exciting and deserved 22-20 win over the Blues in a Vodacom Super Rugby fixture at Growthpoint Kings Park in Durban on Saturday afternoon.
The result is great news for fans of the Toyota Cheetahs, as it means that the Cheetahs will remain in the top six regardless of what happens later in the day when the Bloemfontein team play the DHL Stormers at Newlands.
And with four points destined to come their way for the bye they will have in the last weekend of the round robin, it seems the Cheetahs are virtually assured of their place in the play-offs.
The Sharks had looked to be well on the way to victory when they led 17-5 at halftime, but the Blues fought back in the early stages of the second half with two good tries before their flyhalf Chris Noakes kicked them into a 20-17 lead.
That was with 20 minutes to go, but although the Sharks had most of the game from them, they had to wait until the final minute before finally getting across the line.
The winning move was started by a quick throw-in from Butch James, with patience being the hall-mark of the build-up after that.
Eventually there was space out wide on the right and Patrick Lambie made the right decision in playing in that direction, with fullback Viljoen having just enough room to wriggle over in the face of the attention of two defenders.
It was a fitting way for the game to end, for the Sharks didn’t deserve to lose.
Lambie had an off day with his place-kicking boot, and ended with a less than 50% success rate.
He missed a couple of penalties, including two that could have brought the scores level, and then Bismarck du Plessis, who had taken over the captaincy armband when Keegan Daniel departed late in the game, opted to set up a lineout instead of go for posts from in front of the posts with five minutes to go.
That lineout didn’t work out, but the Sharks maintained the territorial pressure, camping for the last five minutes in the Blues' 22.
But although it was a back who scored the winning try, it was the pack that set up the victory, and as someone put it, although John Plumtree may be gone as coach of the Sharks franchise, the awesome pack that he has created and coached remains together and on Saturday they were outstanding in setting up the win.
It isn’t really rocket science to figure it out, and it should be obvious to anyone who has been paying attention, but the match did show where the season has gone wrong for the Sharks.
Injuries have plagued them all season, and in this game, the pack was back to close to full strength for the first time.
And the value of that was immediate, with the scrum dominating, particularly in the first half, and the lineout platform that was set up was awesome too.
Off that foundation, the likes of the fit-again Willem Alberts were able to excel with their strong physical driving game, and in the first half the Blues never had an opportunity to breathe as the Sharks' big men suffocated them and denied them possession at source.
But there was a cautionary note that was sounded during that first 40 minutes.
The Blues had hardly any possession, but when they did get scraps coming their way, they were dangerous.
And that was where the injury plague remained in place as a debilitating factor for the Sharks, for the backline remains way below full muster and, but for the final move of the game, it showed whenever the play was moved away from the channels close to the forwards.
Wing Frank Halai scored a try that was way too easy in the creation for the visiting team’s five points before halftime, and co-coach Grant Bashford was right to note at the break, where the Sharks led 17-5, that the Blues had threatened with the small percentage of ball they did get to play with.
The Sharks’ two tries in that opening period, quite predictably considering how completely dominant the pack was, came through driving mauls off the lineout. The first came in the 24th minute, flanker Marcell Coetzee breaking off the maul as it went over the line to score the first try of the match for the hosts to take a 7-0 lead once Lambie had slotted the conversion.
They didn’t have to wait long to double the score, five minutes to be precise, this time scrumhalf Charl McLeod dotting down from a lineout that formed on the opposite side to where the first try-producing lineout was set.
At 14-0 the Sharks were well in control of the game, but unfortunately for them they missed a few additional opportunities.
The Blues fronted well defensively in the first quarter of the game, when the Sharks had enough possession and enough of a territorial dominance to already be well ahead.
It didn’t help that Lambie chose this moment to lose the pinpoint goalkicking form that he boasted earlier in the season.
The flyhalf was on target though with a kick shortly before halftime that restored some sense of equilibrium after Halai’s first try and a 12-point lead was the least the Sharks deserved at the halfway point.
Clearly though there were some animated words from Blues coach John Kirwan to his charges during the change-over. The Auckland team came out with renewed urgency, and went straight onto the attack.
A kick down the left flank created the pressure on the Sharks that left space out on the right, with Halai going over in the right corner for the second try.
Flyhalf Chris Noakes missed both touchline conversion attempts, but he was on the mark a few minutes later after Rene Ranger, who had come on as a replacement, went over off a pick and go to score near the posts.
Sharks – Tries: Marcell Coetzee, Charl McLeod, Riaan Viljoen. Conversions: Pat Lambie (2).
Blues – Tries: Frank Halai (2), Rene Ranger. Penalty: Baden Kerr.