/ 18 May 2008

Sharks surge into semifinals

The target for a Super 14 rugby semifinal berth for the Sharks was clear — a bonus-point victory initially or a win by 18 points or more — as they took to the field against the Chiefs of New Zealand at the Absa Stadium in Durban on Saturday night.

And, in the end, it was a convincing triumph as the necessary four tries were secured and surpassed.

So, on Sunday the Sharks pack their bags for Australia and a semifinal meeting with the Waratahs, while the Hurricanes oppose the Crusaders in the other semifinal next weekend.

All told, it was a solid victory by 22 points. In beating the Chiefs 47-25, the Sharks pipped the Stormers into the final grouping.

They scored seven tries, six of them converted, against three tries, two conversions and two penalties by the Chiefs who really gave the KwaZulu-Natal men a battle to remember in spite of the huge margin of victory.

It was a two-try burst in five minutes halfway through the first half that gave the Sharks the incentive they needed.

For all that, it was desperate stuff and the Chiefs never gave up the fight, but the Sharks had the bit between their teeth and were never going to let go.

With so much at stake, the Sharks began in fine style, twice threatening a scrambling Chiefs defence on their own line — but the visitors from New Zealand stood firm.

Then, as the crowd of 41 236 fans got into gear and roared them on, the Sharks, with scrumhalf Rory Kockott ready to take on the whole Chiefs side on his own, threw early caution to the wind in their desperate attempt to get those four tries they needed.

The impasse was finally broken after 20 minutes when the KwaZulu-Natal men surged downfield in a concerted raid with AJ Venter leading the forwards towards the try line. The backs joined in and flyhalf Ruan Pienaar wriggled his way over for the opening try of the game. Kockott converted and the Sharks were seven points to the good.

Five minutes later, the Chiefs were again punished when they made a midfield error and the surging Sharks, led by centre Bradley Barritt and wing Odwa Ndungane, broke clear for Adrian Jacobs to pick up the loose ball and crash over. Again Kockott was on target and, in the space of five minutes, the Sharks had two valuable tries and 14 points towards their pre-match target.

The Chiefs were not done yet by any manner of means and wing Lelia Masaga was forced out at the corner in another of the Sharks’ defensive tackles, but they were rewarded when flanker Faifili Levave got over. The conversion attempt failed as the ball hit the right-hand upright from Stephen Donald’s kick.

Then the Sharks showed their teeth. Almost instantly, they had a third try — this time to hard-working hooker Bismarck du Plessis with Kockott converting from the touch line.

A Donald penalty reduced the Sharks’ lead to 21-8 at half-time.

The Sharks’ task was, once again, magnified when the Chiefs struck back with a try by centre Mils Muliaina, converted by Donald who then kicked a penalty to make the difference a mere three points.

With the atmosphere electric, the Sharks managed their bonus-point try 22 minutes into the second half. Kockott set the pace. JP Pietersen was on hand to send Jacques Botes on his way and then a finely judged final pass had lock Steven Sykes streak, unmarked, towards an open line and the most valuable try of the season.

The Sharks stretched the lead to 35-18 when eighthman Ryan Kankowski, a tireless worker, broke clear for converted try number five.

The Chiefs missed a certain try of their own accord when the ball was spilt forward by a diving wing.

Back came the Sharks with a second Kankowski try and a seventh to wing Odwa Ndungane. The Chiefs ended with a converted try on the final whistle, but it was too late to dent the festivities for the Sharks fans.

Indeed it was game, set and match and a Super 14 semifinal achieved with the necessary points differential and bonus tries. — Sapa