The Sharks took a step closer to a home semi-final with a 22-10 victory over the Cheetahs in Durban.
The victory takes the Sharks back to the top of the log and only a capitulation of note can deny them the opportunity to host a semi-final.
The Cheetahs, in contrast, are now just five points clear of the fifth placed Western Province and can’t afford to slip up against the high flying Bulls in Bloemfontein next week.
The Sharks were bolstered by the return of more Springboks and had too much quality across the park for the gutsy Free Staters. The gulf in class became more and more apparent as the match progressed, and while it was hardly flawless, the strength of this showing suggests teams will have to produce something very special to stop them this year.
Both sides were relatively conservative in the tactics early on, opting to build up through the phases and kick tactically.
The Cheetahs were impressive at set phases for the most part, scrumming strongly, while proving to be secure on their own ball and tormenting the Sharks on their feeds.
The first try came in exactly that fashion when Bismarck du Plessis’ throw failed to find its intended target. Juan Smith was quickest to react, poached the ball and powered over the tryline from 15m out.
But the Sharks soon settled into their pattern, building up patiently through the phases in an attempt to deplete a well organised Cheetahs defence. That approach achieved the desired result when Steven Sykes crashed over the tryline.
Frans Steyn, who had an impressive game at inside centre, then sunk a 55m drop goal before slicing open the Cheetahs’ defensive drew the last defender and offloaded to prop Deon Carstens, who sprinted up the touchline to score. Ruan Pienaar added the extras and the Sharks ran down the tunnel 17-10 ahead.
The Sharks heavies improved exponentially in the second half and this allowed the team to change tact, shifting from a direct to a more expansive approach. The Cheetahs looked defensively vulnerable and it was only a matter of time before they succumbed to the incessant pressure.
The TMO denied Bismarck du Plessis a try, but soon thereafter Keegan Daniel rounded off an expansive move after his forwards had pounded the Cheetahs into submission.
The Cheetahs were a battered unit and never looked to have the ability to drag themselves off the canvas. In fact, the Sharks would be disappointed not to have increased their points tally – a number of handling errors and poor decisions thwarting their quest for the bonus point.
Sharks – Try: Deon Carstens, Steven Sykes, Keegan Daniel. Conversion: Ruan Pienaar (2). Drop goal: Frans Steyn
Cheetahs - Try: Juan Smith. Conversion: Tewis de Bruyn. Penalty: De Bruyn