The Sharks produced a stellar second half comeback to down the Reds 30-28 in Durban.
The hosts trailed 21-9 two minutes into the second stanza, but they scored three tries and saw off a late Reds fightback to claim their third successive win.
However, they will again rue not claiming the bonus point although not through a lack of effort. The decision to take the lineout from a penalty three minutes from the end nearly back-fired as Digby Ioane surged 50m down field and nearly broke the massive home crowd’s hearts. The Sharks saw off the danger and their remote semi-final dream lives on.
Ruan Pienaar opened the scoring with penalty after five minutes, but they would regret not converting their dominance in the opening 10 minutes into breathing space on the scoreboard. The visitors then schooled the Sharks in finishing, as Quade Cooper claimed their first try after his second break in the same movement.
The Reds’ plan to attack Andy Goode’s flyhalf channel was clear, and it nearly always resulted in them getting over the advantage line. Cooper beat many feeble tackles and strolled over under the poles then converted his try.
The Reds were patient in their build up play and the hosts were forced to make over 60 tackles in the opening half alone, and Willem Alberts was prominent in this regard as he constantly knocked back attackers.
Eventually that defensive pressure told, as Will Chambers took advantage of some ordinary defence, just as the Sharks looked like they would enter the break with a surprise 9-7 lead.
The Sharks had little ball, but when they did carry it up, they found the Reds’ defence abrasive and they were out-muscled. The Reds led 14-9 at the break, although they had to negotiate a stiff wind in the second.
The Sharks tried to play for territory in the second half, but a couple of errant kicks from Pienaar handed the Reds quality broken field ball. Peter Hynes didn’t need a second invitation, and his counter-attacks laid the platform.
Cooper was dangerous all night and he took advantage, and although his pass was forward to Chambers, he claimed his second.
At 21-9, Pienaar missed a penalty, but the Sharks’ rebound began with Odwa Ndungane crossing for his first try the season.
Jean Deysel subbed for injured Ryan Kankowski just before the break and Deysel had a patent effect on proceedings. His physicality on defence and attack was a boon, as he gave his side front foot ball. The Sharks had the momentum, but failed to grab the chances as JP Pietersen fluffed two try-scoring opportunities, one from a pass and another from a cross-kick.
The performance of the Sharks pack was always be decisive to the outcome, as this would nullify the dangerous Reds backs. They finally began to dominate that facet of play in the second stanza, and their driving maul set up Jacques Botes’s try 15 minutes into the half.
The hosts continued to camp in the Reds’ 22, but referee Chris Pollock’s leniency allowed the visitors to repeatedly infringe at the breakdown without fear of a yellow card. However the Sharks finally crossed the whitewash when Pietersen came off his wing and sniped around a ruck to score. They held a nine-point lead with a quarter of an hour remaining.
But just as they had done in the last couple of weeks, the Sharks seemingly conspired throw away the win through poor defence. The Reds struck back immediately, with Cooper again the catalyst for Greg Holmes’ try.
However, the Sharks gave John Smit the ideal 32nd birthday present as they held on in another thriller.
By Grant Ball