Sharks stutter into final

GARETH DUNCAN watched the Sharks overturn a 13-3 half-time deficit to claim a 20-13 semi-final victory over the Cheetahs in Durban.

The Cheetahs capitalised on the Sharks’ poor first-half performance for their 10-point advantage at the break. Young pivot Johan Goosen proved to be the difference, slotting two difficult penalties (including a 54m kick) while his line break created the opportunity for the try that was scored shortly thereafter.

However, the hosts delivered a strong second-half showing – which included two converted tries in the third quarter. It was a scrappy contest in the final 20 minutes, but fullback Pat Lambie’s second penalty of the match was enough to seal victory.

The win finally sees the Sharks break their domestic play-off voodoo against the Cheetahs. It’s been 11 years since their last semi-final triumph over the Bloemfontein union, with the latter winning 30-14 in 2006 and 23-21 in 2009. And it seemed the Cheetahs were going to snatch their hat-trick on this occasion with the Springbok-laden Sharks looking stale from the outset.

Despite John Plumtree loading seven World Cup Springboks into his starting XV, there was no sign of cohesiveness (especially on defence), too much ill discipline while their goal kicking was poor. Lambie missed an early attempt from right in front before flyhalf Frederic Michalak pushed two sitters shortly after.

The Cheetahs only had 36% of possession in the first quarter, but they found themselves 13-0 ahead in the 23rd minute. After Goosen’s two goals, the Cheetahs broke into the Sharks’ red zone through the 19-year-old. The Sharks stole possession a phase later, but their decision not to clear the ball cost them a try. The Cheetahs managed to poach the pill back, and moved play wide for fullback Hennie Daniller to dot down near the posts.

Lambie’s 36-minute three-pointer was his team’s only points heading into half-time.

The Sharks then played to their potential in the second half, bossing possession in the third quarter and turning their ascendancy into points through loosehead prop Beast Mtawarira, who powered over from close range, and wing Odwa Ndungane, who crossed the chalk after a 12-phase attack. The Cheetahs couldn’t build much momentum against a ferocious defence and predictably folded in the last quarter.

It will be a win that the Sharks will celebrate – but one they also need to take into perspective as a similar first-half performance in the final will cost them back-to-back Currie Cup titles. With one of the strongest line-ups in the competition, Plumtree will demand a better display next weekend.

Follow Gareth on Twitter

Follow SA Rugby mag on Twitter