GARETH DUNCAN watched the Sharks break down a 15-6 half-time deficit to record a crucial 34-15 bonus-point win over the Cheetahs in Durban.
It was mission accomplished for the Sharks, who delivered a strong second-half performance to pick up the win needed for a place in the knock-out phase. Skipper Keegan Daniel, scrumhalf Charl McLeod, flank Marcell Coetzee and No 8 Ryan Kankowski all scored tries after the break as the hosts attacked well and were resilient on defence.
But this all formed part of a complete turnaround, following a poor showing in the first half which saw the Cheetahs lead 15-6 at the break.
The men from Bloemfontein did well to frustrate the Sharks in the opening 40, and capitalised on their ill-discipline. With a good territorial game, the Cheetahs punished the Sharks via the boot in kickable areas.
Inside centre Frans Steyn was also a big loss early on as he was yellow carded for a dangerous tackle on outside centre Robert Ebersohn. Without his aggression in the midfield, the Cheetahs won the ascendancy and patiently built a comfortable lead.
The Sharks created try-scoring opportunities, but lacked the composure to find the finish. All the points were scored via goal attempts, with flyhalf Riaan Smit trading five penalties with opposite number Frederic Michalak’s two three-pointers.
But then came the comeback.
The Sharks showed a great sense of cohesion in the second stanza, and their interplay (especially among the backs) improved. The forwards dominated the breakdown battle, which was an easier contest for the home team as opensider Heinrich Brussow was taken off at half-time because of a knee injury. The introduction of Willem Alberts and Bismarck du Plessis off the bench also gave the home team more grunt.
Daniel dived over early, setting the momentum for the comeback. McLeod scored a controversial try moments later, as it looked like the No 9 lost the ball forward when he caught wing JP Pietersen’s hack ahead. However, referee Jaco Peyper believed the ball came off the leg and not the hand, and the try was awarded.
Coetzee’s score came from a turnover in the Cheetahs’ red zone, and the flank dashed into a gaping hole in the opposition’s defence. Kankowski’s try at the death, which came from an outstanding offload from outside centre Tim Whitehead, completed the win.