The Vodacom Cheetahs beat the Sharks 30-14 in Bloemfontein on Saturday to ensure a home Absa Currie Cup final against the Bulls.
Free State led 24-0 after 30 minutes, and although the Sharks fought their way back into the game through two tries, the result was never in doubt.
Midweek predictions of a dour forward battle couldnâ€™t have been further off the mark as both teams sought to play attacking rugby.
The mind games started pre-match as Dick Muir made six changes to the team he had announced on Thursday. Francois Steyn shifted to fullback to accommodate Butch James at flyhalf, meaning Brent Russell was dropped to the reserve bench as JP Pietersen slotted in on the wing. In the pack, Johan Ackermann, Skipper Badenhorst and Keegan Daniel all started.
The plan backfired spectacularly as the new combinations failed to match the intensity with which the home side began the match.
The Cheetahs could have scored as early as the sixth minute when star wing Phillip Burger broke the defensive line and offloaded to Kabamba Floors. However, he failed to hear the call of the support runner on his inside and the move petered out.
They didnâ€™t have to wait much longer after that to open the scoring, though.
A centrefield scrum, inside the Sharks’ 22, saw the Cheetahs get a strong right shoulder. Willem de Waal collected the ball flat and swung a long cut-out pass to Gavin Passens who stepped inside Odwa Ndungane to score. De Waalâ€™s conversion and a subsequent penalty sent the Cheetahs into a commanding 13-0 lead after 14 minutes.
The game was marred by niggle between the players and when Johan Ackermann was sin-binned in the 15th minute for punching, the Cheetahs capitalised.
They pressured the Sharks with a series of backline forays, one of which resulted in the TMO turning down the claim for a try.
That seemed to spur on the hosts and it was from yet another centrefield scrum that they scored their second try. Joint Man of the Match Bevin Fortuin ran a fantastic line and received an inside switch off his pivot. Great support play from Ryno van der Merwe saw the eighthman cross for his ninth try of the season.
Muir responded with a series of personnel changes, as Russell, Bismarck du Plessis and Deon Carstens were sent on in an attempt to pull the Sharks back into the match. The Cheetahs though compounded their misery with their third try on the match, with Floors (the other Man of the Match) the catalyst.
Seemingly aimless backline play finally bore fruit when De Waal timed his pass perfectly to put Floors into space. The former Sevens star drew a defender and dished the pass out to Passens who out sprinted Pietersen to double his try tally. De Waalâ€™s successful conversion meant the Durban-based side were under serious pressure.
But they are known to be a resilient team and launched a comeback by scoring tries either side of the break.
Russell sparked life into a unimaginative backline, and he was central to a 38th minute try, when he doubled around to collect a sublime no-look pass from Waylon Murray, drew Fortuin and passed for Pietersen to score. Ruan Pienaar converted from the right hand touchline.
The Sharks produced a sustained period of pressure and 12 minutes after the break they made it 27-14, when Du Plessis emerged from a rolling maul, following a 5m line-out, to score.
But a series of handling errors, the most notable coming from Jacques Botes who knocked on after Russell had seared down the left touchline and put him into a certain try scoring position, denied the visitors the chance of a memorable comeback.
Ultimately, Meyer Bosman broke their resistance with a 43m penalty, adding to De Waalâ€™s earlier effort, to open the gap to 16 points and send them into the Absa Currie Cup final.
Cheetahs - Tries: Gavin Passens (2), Ryno van der Merwe. Conversions: Willem de Waal (3). Penalties: De Waal (2), Meyer Bosman.
Sharks - Tries: JP Pietersen, Bismarck du Plessis. Conversion: Ruan Pienaar.
By Ryan Vrede