The Cell C Sharks secured a spot in next weekend’s Currie Cup knockouts against the Toyota Free State Cheetahs with a 48-40 win over the Vodacom Blue Bulls in a 12-try thriller at Loftus on Saturday evening.
With Western Province losing to the Cheetahs and the Lions defeating Griquas, the Cell C Sharks slipped into fifth place on the log, but requiring just one point to overhaul Province, although they could not finish any higher than fourth. But a wonderful effort against the Bulls meant the Cell C Sharks had finished in the top four, with the Golden Lions and Griquas meeting in the other semi-final.
Sanele Nohamba added the first points of the game with a well taken penalty after a good, solid build-up and then no advantage from a high tackle.
However, the Bulls struck back almost immediately, a clearing kick finding a Bulls player in space and then too much space to exploit before the home side were over for the first try under the posts. But in a mirror of the earlier effort, penalty advantage allowed the young scrumhalf to revert to near parity with a second three-pointer to bring the game back to almost even-stevens.
The Bulls, promising a strong finish to a disappointing season, were fired-up and following a 10-phase attack, scored their second try with the forwards ploughing away relentlessly to take a 14-6 lead as the game hit the end of the first quarter.
The next score went the way of the Cell C Sharks, a real team effort with the two returning Boks playing a big role in finishing off the move, Andre Esterhuizen smashing through and Thomas du Toit closing out for their first try, with Nohamba taking them to within one point.
The Bulls took the next attacking effort through 11 phases with the forwards again prominent, but eventually the ball getting to the backline and hitting the ball at speed, the third try came and with the conversion, a 21-13 lead with eight minutes of an action-packed first half.
The fifth try of the game came from nothing, Apelele Fassi getting the ball on his 10m line, making a wonderful break and offloading to Jacques Vermeulen and the flank pinned back his ears and raced 40m to the tryline for an important score, just a minute later.
The Bulls suffered the ignominy of a red card for a high, late and dangerous shoulder charge with no arms into the throat of Kobus van Wyk with just a couple of minutes of the half remaining. With the half-time hooter having sounded, Boeta Chamberlain held off his pass and then put Esterhuizen in space for the vital try to retake the lead. Nohamba continued his wonderful kicking to convert for an important 27-20 half-time lead.
Fassi was in wonderful form, exploiting space to set up the bonus point try, JP Pietersen grubbering the ball through the defence for Jeremy Ward to run onto to score untouched as the visitors went into a strong 13-point lead minutes into the second half.
Fassi was again the man of the moment as he broke through the midfield doing some amazing work on attack before feeding Nohamba who then sent van Wyk clean through to the tryline for the fifth try, sending the Cell C Sharks into a 41-21 lead with half an hour still remaining.
The Bulls showed that not panicking was the route to a fightback and they produced a well-worked, high tempo attack to score their fourth try and when they scored their fifth, with 12 minutes of the game remaining, there should only have been six points in it, but a committed charge down saved the day and the Bulls were eight points behind.
But it would be young Chamberlain who put the result out of doubt, a chip and chase securing possession in space before he offloaded to Rhyno Smith who converted his own try for a 15-point lead as the Cell C Sharks approached a half century with five minutes remaining.
The Bulls scored in injury time, but by then the game had been won and lost. But what a game, full of thrills and ultimately exactly what the Cell C Sharks needed with the semi-finals beckoning.
For Blue Bulls:
Tries: Kotze, Gqoboka, Libbok, Hendricks, Steenkamp, Agaba
Cons: Libbok 5, Isaacs
Tries: Du Toit, Vermeulen, Esterhuizen, Ward, Van Wyk, Smith
Cons: Nohamba 5, Smith
Pens: Nohamba 2