Sharks subdue Highlanders, into Super Rugby semis
DURBAN, South Africa (AP) — The Sharks dug deep for a 31-27 win over the Highlanders to make the Super Rugby semifinals on Saturday, finally subduing a tenacious New Zealand team which twice came from behind to lead and was ultimately denied in the final minutes.
Despite holding forward dominance throughout the playoff at home at Kings Park, the Sharks were trailing with seven minutes to go and needed two late penalties by flyhalf Frans Steyn to take their place in the last four and keep alive hopes of a first title.
The Sharks twice surrendered the lead and control to the Highlanders’ lethal backline attacks, which produced three tries and nearly a repeat of the visitors’ surprise win in Durban during the regular season.
Steyn kicked his game-deciding penalties in the 74th and 79th minutes after the Sharks’ forward power finally paid off — but only just — to set up a semifinal at seven-time champions the Crusaders.
“I must say they ran us to pieces at some stages,” Sharks captain Bismarck du Plessis said. “Their whole backline was absolutely amazing.”
The New South Wales Waratahs and ACT Bumbies will meet in an Australian derby in the other semifinal.
In Durban, the Sharks led 10-0 through an early Marcell Coetzee score off a rolling maul and were in complete control, but the Highlanders scored two tries at the end of the first half through All Blacks center Malakai Fekitoa and prop Kane Hames to turn it around at 17-13.
The Sharks pushed ahead 25-20 in the second only for another superb backline try when wing Patrick Osborne and center Phil Burleigh combined to put the Highlanders within reach of an upset win at 27-25.
Sharks replacement flanker Jean Deysel lost the ball on the tryline in the 72nd minute as the home team launched a succession of desperate close-quarter, forward-dominated attacks. They earned a penalty and Steyn gave the Sharks the lead for the third and final time. He added his fourth successful penalty with barely a minute left to make certain and finally end the season for the resilient Highlanders.
“I’m just proud of our character ... I thought we did ourselves justice tonight,” Highlanders fullback Ben Smith said.
Bullying the Highlanders in the scrums and lineouts, the Sharks forwards powered over in the 13th minute for flanker Coetzee’s try and the South African team should have had a second in the 16th when wing S’bura Sithole threw the ball to the wrong player after a break down the right.
Sharks prop Jannie du Plessis also had a try between the posts disallowed and the Highlanders, pushed back in the scrum and losing their own lineouts, appeared set for a long night.
Instead, they let loose their dangerous backline at every opportunity, striking first when Fekitoa raced through a large gap in midfield and kept going to score in the corner in the 32nd. Front-rower Hames went over after the halftime hooter, popping up on the left wing to round off a flowing Highlanders attack that originated way back in their own territory.
Sharks hooker Bismarck du Plessis emerged from another powerful home scrum to drop on a loose ball for a try early in the second. Three minutes later he gave replacement wing Tonderai Chavhanga just enough space to race away down the touchline.
Yet the Highlanders replied again with Burleigh’s score, the result of a brilliant flick pass out of the tackle by Osborne and which flipped the game around for a second time.
The Highlanders couldn’t do it again, though, as the Sharks overcame their frustration and used their big forwards off the bench to grind out two late kickable penalties that Steyn landed. It meant the Sharks still have the chance to end a series of near-misses in Super Rugby having lost four finals and three semifinals.
“I’ll say we do take confidence (into the semifinal)” Bismarck du Plessis said. “We really hope the whole of South Africa is behind us.”
Sharks 31 (Marcell Coetzee, Bismarck du Plessis, Tonderai Chavhanga tries; Frans Steyn 2 conversions, 4 penalties), Highlanders 27 (Malakai Fekitoa, Kane Hames, Phil Burleigh tries; Lima Sopoaga 3 conversions, 2 penalties). HT: 13-17.