Toyota Cheetahs midfielder Rayno Benjamin made an exceptional try-saving tackle in the dying moments of the game to cause the upset of the Vodacom Super Rugby weekend and give his team a 27-20 win over the Cell C Sharks in Bloemfontein on Saturday night.
Benjamin’s effort on replacement winger Tonderai Chavhanga, getting the Sharks winger’s hand to slide along the touchline ended an enthralling contest, but did little for South Africa’s remaining hopes in this year’s tournament.
After the Vodacom Bulls hopes were firmly ended by the DHL Stormers earlier in the evening, the Sharks' aspirations took a massive knock as they slid into third place on the log, now behind the log-leading Waratahs, who play early on Sunday morning, and the Seven-time champions, the Crusaders.
With the convoluted system of working out the playoffs, this means that unless the Sharks can leapfrog one of the two teams in the final weekend, they will end up third and face an extra playoff week, as well as surrendering a home semifinal and possible home final.
But while questions may still be asked about the policy of playing all the top players for eight weeks straight in the competition and not using the rotational policy more effectively, the Sharks could do little against a Cheetahs side, many of whom were still on a high after returning from Springbok duty a week earlier.
While the Sharks surrendered the momentum by resting their top Boks, the Cheetahs' Bok stars were prominent in getting them their first win against the coastal side in five years and a famous victory for Naka Drotske’s side.
The Cheetahs raced to a 10-0 lead early on then watched it eaten away by some resolute attacking by the Sharks, before putting the hammer down to take the lead out again to 27-13.
But a late comeback – notably when players such as Willem Alberts, Bismarck and Jannie du Plessis came on, changed the momentum and complexion of the game, and for the last 10 minutes the Cheetahs were firmly on the back foot and lucky to survive.
Still, the Sharks were hit with a massive Cheetahs start, after Johan Goosen put them ahead early on with a penalty and then their pack sent out a firm warning as they took a lineout and drove it upfield, resulting in an unstoppable force that rumbled on for 35 metres, before Torsten van Jaarsveld simply fell over the line for the first try.
But while the scoreline looked bad, it was almost as if the try woke the Sharks up and they suddenly played with more purpose, more direction, grabbing a penalty back before evening up the scoreline after an exceptional break by Cobus Reinach, who, seeing a gap from a lineout, scooted through, then pinned his ears back to outwit a slow defence for one of the tries of the tournament.
Reinach may not have had a look-in yet in the Bok squad, but a try like that will certainly make the selectors sit up and take notice.
Phillip van der Walt crashed over after a barrage of hits close up as the Cheetahs probed around the fringes to see the home side go into the break 17-13 up.
Some prominent work by Lodewyk de Jager, taking the line break and then popping up at the end of the movement to crash over from close range, gave the Cheetahs a distinct advantage, which was underlined when Goosen added yet another penalty to make it 27-13 with less than 20 to go.
But the Sharks rung the changes, brought back the experience and started chipping away, and were rewarded with five minutes to go as their maul rumbled over and Bismarck du Plessis got the try.
Goosen did his side no favours by receiving a yellow card in the last few minutes for kicking the ball away, and it seemed that with all the pressure, and dominating the scrums at this point, the Sharks would get home to at least force a draw.
But then Benjamin did the improbable, and saved the try. It signified not only a win for the Cheetahs, but was significant as it showed just how much they wanted the victory.
The Sharks have a tough road ahead, but have made it tougher for themselves with this result.
If they still want to lift the trophy in a month’s time, they will have to dig themselves out of a rather deep hole.
Cheetahs - Tries: Torsten Van Jaarsveld, Phillip Van Der Walt, Lood de Jager . Conversions: Johan Goosen (3). Penalties: Goosen (2).
Sharks - Tries: Cobus Reinach, Bismarck du Plessis. Conversion: Tim Swiel (2). Penalties: Swiel (2)