The Sharks saved their best performance of the tournament for when it mattered most, decimating the Chiefs 47-25 in Durban.
The victory ended the Stormers’ hopes of a play-off place and sets up a trip to Sydney where they’ll face the Waratahs.
There really are no words to describe this performance. Sublime would fail to capture it, while stupendous doesn’t describe their excellence on the night. They go into the semi-final as the underdogs but you sense they won’t mind that billing. After this display there’ll be a deeply-rooted belief that they can beat anybody.
The Sharks came into this match needing to win with a bonus point or by more than 18-points if they hoped to pip the Stormers on points difference. At half-time they had made significant strides towards achieving that goal by leading 21-8 and crucially needing just one more try for the bonus-point.
The Chiefs looked a ragged and demoralised unit who had one foot on the plane back to New Zealand. They were unstructured and rudderless on attack, which suited the Sharks as they often isolated themselves, allowing the hosts a crack at turning over possession.
The Sharks, conversely, where clinical in every facet of play.
All the midweek talk from Durban was about patience and backing their skills through a number phases, before looking to get their backline in the game.
They executed that plan accurately, which must be complimented, given the temptation to revert to an expansive approach in search of four tries. And they were rewarded for that approach in scoring their first try.
The Sharks pounded up through 11 phases, sucking in the Chiefs’ defenders. The ball found Ruan Pienaar who cut through a porous defensive line.
They also enjoyed complete dominance at scrum time, which gave their backline a superb platform from which to launch. Defensively that dominance aided them as well, with the Chiefs’ backline routinely being fed with scrappy ball.
Despite this, the visitors still looked to attack, but with the Sharks’ defensive line putting immense pressure on them space was at a premium.
Chiefs centre Callum Bruce coughed up the ball under exactly this sort of pressure, and it was fly hacked ahead by Pienaar. Lelia Masaga made an absolute hash of collecting the pill. Jacques Botes dumped himself on it before the ball was recycled to Adi Jacobs, who powered over the tryline from close range.
The Chiefs hit back just before half-time through Faifili Levave, but conceded immediately, Brad Barritt collecting an up-and-under that was allowed to bounce in the Chiefs 22m and dished out to Bismarck du Plessis who cruised home.
The Chiefs changed their approach and kept the ball closer after the break, seeking to build through the phases. The tactic proved very successful and they profited from it – Mils Muliaina scoring after his side had taken the ball through 10 phases.
But that’s as good as it got for the Hamilton franchise, as the Sharks put on an exhibition of the attacking play.
They scored four tries, the pick of which was Ryan Kankowski’s second, which was birthed in their own 22m and was marked by interplay of the highest order.
The Sharks management have maintained that when it clicks for their side they’ll be unstoppable. And boy, did it click tonight. Whether this performance can be replicated in a week remains to be seen, but if they even come close to touching the ceiling of their ability they’ll have an opportunity to avenge their heart-breaking loss in last year’s final.
Sharks - Try: Ruan Pienaar, Adi Jacobs, Bismarck du Plessis, Steven Sykes, Ryan Kankowski (2), Odwa Ndungane. Conversion: Rory Kockott (6)
Chiefs - Try: Faifili Levave, Mils Muliaina, Viliame Waqaseduadua. Conversion: Stephen Donald (2). Penalty: Donald (2).
By Ryan Vrede