Ruan Pienaar missed a last-minute conversion to hand a 37-35 victory to the Vodacom Cheetahs in an enthralling Absa Currie Cup match.
The Sharks take two bonus-points from the Bloemfontein game and that might be enough to secure their place in the play-offs, but a home semi-final is now unlikely.
The Cheetahs defended valiantly all game and an unstructured Sharks team never seemed to get any momentum.
It was predicted that both sides would looked to suppress their natural attacking instincts and keep the game tight for the first twenty minutes. They defied those predictions and the match opened with a frenetic pace and intensity.
Pienaarâ€™s early penalty was cancelled out by two from Willem de Waal, before the home side crossed for the opening try of the match. Ollie Le Roux opted to go for touch from a penalty in the Sharks 22m area and the Cheetahs’ rolling maul devastated the Sharks forwards as they drove over for Richardt Strauss to score.
The Sharks though were showing significant improvements in all facets of play and a period of sustained pressure saw them quickly draw to within one point. Eighthman Ryan Kankowski fielded a return punt in his 22 and launched an up-and-under which BJ Botha collected. Pienaar showed fine awareness to swing the ball to his left and in doing so exposed a scattered defence. Quick hands by the backline left Odwa Ndungane with a clear run and he scored under the posts. Pienaarâ€™s second penalty made it a three-point game.
One letdown was the amount of kicking that both side’s done for much of the game. It seemed as if coaches Rassie Erasmus and Dick Muir had instructed their teams to punt for territory and play in the opposition half, which spoiled the running rugby spectacle this game was billed as.
De Waal stretched his sideâ€™s lead to seven points as he slotted another penalty and a wobbly drop goal, before the Cheetahs scored three minutes from the break. The try was a carbon copy of the first, as the rolling maul once again proved the bane of the Sharks, Jannie du Plessis breaking off the back to score.
With Johann Muller yellow-carded for collapsing the maul that resulted in Du Plessis try, the Sharks were under huge pressure from the outset of the second-half. But far from just hanging, they proceeded to claw their way back into the game.
Ryan Kankowski scored an sensational try as he collected at stand-off and side-stepped the cover defence to streak away on a 30m break which left the Cheetahs defenders grasping at his heels. Pienaarâ€™s conversion and a 50th minute penalty made the score 27-24 before a Waylon Murray try sent the Sharks ahead.
The match opened up with both teams creating opportunities, but it would be yet another Cheetahs drive close to the line that proved to be the decisive score, Ryno van der Merwe touching down on this occasion.
An almighty Sharks attack ensued, with the hostâ€™s conceding a plethora of penalties. The pressure eventually paid off when Keegan Daniel corkscrewed his way out of a tackle and desperately reach over the line for the bonus-point try.
But Ruan Pienaar skewed his kick horribly and despite a valiant effort and much improved performance the, Sharks now find their semi-final dreams in jeopardy.
Cheetahs - Tries: Richardt Strauss, Jannie du Plessis,Ryno van der Merwe. Conversion: Willem de Waal (2). Penalties: Willem de Waal (5) Drop goal: De Waal
Sharks - Tries: Odwa Ndungane, Ryan Kankowski, Waylon Murray, Keegan Daniel. Conversions: Pienaar (3). Penalties: Ruan Pienaar (3).
By Ryan Vrede