Sunday, 29 July 2012
The Sharks held off a late comeback by the Stormers to defeat their South African counterparts 26-19 to reach the Super Rugby final on Saturday.
The Stormers looked dead and buried when JP Pietersen's try put the Sharks ahead by 14 points with 20 minutes remaining, but winger Gio Aplon's five-pointer seven minutes later set up a thrilling finish at Newlands in Cape Town.
The home side pushed for the try after the final hooter had sounded, but the Sharks held on to book a date with New Zealand's Chiefs in next weekend's final in Hamilton.
In the process, the Sharks became the first side in Super Rugby history to win back-to-back playoff games away from home, having beaten Queensland in Brisbane last week.
Sharks captain Keegan Daniel was thrilled to come away with the victory but wasn't getting too carried away with the result.
"It was tough and we had to put our bodies on the line," he said.
"While we celebrated at the end it is important to remember that we have won nothing yet."
Rival captain and inside centre Jean de Villiers found defeat difficult to accept: "It will take a while to get over this and we can blame only ourselves. It is particularly tough on our supporters as we let them down badly."
The Stormers had won 14 of their 16 regular-season matches with a defensive game plan that relied on making fewer errors than their opposition, and were ultimately left to reflect on a rusty performance in which they made too many mistakes.
A furious start to the match saw both sides reverting to type, with the Sharks' running game dictated by the in-form Pietersen while the Stormers looked to hold firm and kick for territory.
After Peter Grant had opened the scoring in the seventh minute with a straightforward penalty for the Stormers, the Sharks began to dominate both possession and territory.
An infringement in the scrum allowed five-eighth Frederic Michalak to level the scores, and by the midway point in the first half the visitors were in front thanks to the Frenchman's drop goal.
The Stormers nearly hit back with a promising move down the left wing that ultimately saw de Villiers held up on the line, but instead it was the Sharks who scored the first try of the game.
Winger Louis Ludik won a high ball on the home side's 22-metre line, before stepping inside two defenders to cruise over the tryline.
Grant's penalty on the stroke of halftime narrowed the deficit to 13-6, but some Sharks pressure early in the second half allowed the Durban side to restore their 10-point advantage.
Although Grant hit back with his third penalty of the evening in the 57th minute, Pietersen's sublime sidestep two minutes later saw him ghost past Stormers lock Eben Etzebeth and put the Cape Town team in real strife.
The Stormers fought to the last, with Aplon's try and another Grant penalty putting them within four points of the Sharks, but another Michalak drop goal and some solid defence saw the Sharks reach their fourth Super rugby final.