A spirited fightback by the Sharks was not enough to escape defeat in Bloemfontein with the Cheetahs hanging on for a 27-20 win on Saturday.
They say no-one does any other team any favours, and despite Cheetahs’ captain Adriaan Strauss wishing the Sharks everything of the best after the match – “They carry the South African hopes in this competition” – it was clear that there was no love lost in wanting to win this game, despite the repercussions for the visitors.
The Cheetahs started off with fire in the belly, looking to prove that their log position going into this game (last) was not an accurate reflection of their ability and they had a 10-point lead before 10 minutes of play was over.
An early penalty and then a 40m driving maul resulted in a good try which Goosen converted saw them take control on the scoreboard.
It wasn’t quite what the Sharks might have planned for, given their own success this season and the potential rewards that lie ahead, but they showed some good touches on attack and excellent continuity in ball possession.
They did eventually break the shackles and struck back, Tim Swiel kicking a penalty and then converting a wonderful individual effort from Cobus Reinach which saw him bob, weave and sprint his way to the tryline from his side of the halfway line, showing his x-factor ability and pulling his team right back into the game.
After 25 minutes of play, Tim Swiel’s second penalty took his team into the lead for the first time in the game, but a succession of pick and drives saw Cheetahs’ eighthman Philip van der Walt round off the advantage and score his team’s second try, the conversion taking them into the lead again.
The high-pace game continued until the half-time whistle as the Sharks sensed another score and played some enterprising rugby on attack, but just couldn’t close out the opportunity, allowing the home side to hold on to their 17-13 lead at the break.
It took 10 minutes of helter-skelter action before the next score, Lood de Jager managing to bustle his way over for his team’s third try, giving the Cheetahs a worrying 24-13 lead.
It was a frustrating half for the Sharks who just couldn’t close out some promising opportunities as they chased the game and found the Cheetahs’ defence – the worst in the competition this year – to be up for this challenge.
But after a few unfortunate near-misses, they got it perfectly right, winning a scrum penalty, kicking to the corner, the perfect lineout take and a wonderful driving maul that the Cheetahs had absolutely no counter against, allowing Bismarck du Plessis to dot down and Tim Swiel to convert to bring the Sharks back to within seven points and five minutes to play.
With two minutes remaining, there was a sense of déjà vu as they had a another scrum penalty, kicked to the corner but were unable to maul it up.
Young Thomas du Toit, on for his debut, made a good effort to take possession close to the tryline before the Sharks were held up.
They earned a penalty in front of the posts, elected for the scrum which saw them earn another penalty and the Cheetahs losing Goosen to a yellow card for kicking the ball away.
It was nail-biting stuff, and it wasn’t over.
Tonderai Chavhanga, on for the final few minutes, managed to get close, and despite a plethora of penalties conceded by the home side, they managed to cling on to the win and avoid a draw which would have given the visitors two log points and the chance to remain in second spot on the log.
As it is, they picked up a bonus point for losing by seven points and finish the weekend in third place, tied on 46 points with the Crusaders but with a marginally poorer points’ difference.
Strauss admitted afterwards that, “It as a tough game, but I’m very proud of the guys. Everyone had a great game, they played for each other.”
Sharks captain Jean Deysel said: “We knew it would tough. It just wasn’t our day today. Next week we travel to Cape Town, we need to regroup back at home.”
Tries: Cobus Reinach, Bismarck du Plessis
Conversions: Tim Swiel (2)
Penalties: Tim Swiel (2)
Tries: Torsten van Jaarsveld, Philip van der Walt, Lood de Jager
Conversions: Johan Goosen (3)
Penalties: Johan Goosen (2)
Earlier, the Stormers ended the Bulls’ play-off hopes with a 16-0 win in Cape Town.
The Lions, meanwhile, celebrated their best Super Rugby season in history when they beat the Rebels 34-17 to claim their sixth win of the year on Friday night.