Sharks win Loftus thriller
Pretoria - The Sharks ended the Bulls' impressive six-match winning streak by securing a hard fought 26-23 victory in Pretoria on Saturday to qualify for the Super Rugby finals series.
They now have the daunting task of travelling to Nelson in New Zealand where they will face the Crusaders, but will go there knowing that they are capable of winning on the road.
A late try by wing Lwazi Mvovo and a brilliant individual showing by French International Frederick Michalak brought a packed Loftus Versfeld to their knees as the defending champions bid farewell to several of their long serving stalwarts.
The contest got off to a thundering start with the visitors showing their intent at the tackle area.
It was also at the breakdown where flanks Keegan Daniel and Deon Stegmann were involved in a titanic battle that played a huge role in the final result.
Flyhalves Patrick Lambie and Morné Steyn exchanged penalties in the opening five minutes before the Sharks started dictating proceedings.
Having taken control of possession, the men from Durban started attacking from all corners of the field where props Tendai Mtawarira and Jannie du Plessis showed that they are also capable of distributing the ball like backline players.
Lambie put his side back in front with another three-pointer as the men from Pretoria were forced into backpedalling for the greater part of the first half.
Despite playing off the back foot, the Bulls managed to keep the visitors out through some brilliant defence.
However, they were forced to watch the man-of-the-match Michalak put a drop-goal through the uprights to extend his team's lead to six.
While what actually happened at scrum time will remain a mystery to most, the Bulls will be grateful that Lambie failed to convert a penalty that came as a result of a fault at that set piece.
The young pivot would go on to miss two more crucial shots at goal before Michalak took over the kicking duties. It has to be noted however, that Lambie's misfiring was partly due to some of the Bulls fans shining lazers into the Sharks No 10's eyes as he prepared to kick.
For the Bulls there were a number of stand-out players on the night with Chiliboy Ralepelle overshadowing Springbok team-mates Bismarck du Plessis and John Smit.
Not only was the hooker impressive in protecting the ruck fringes, he also showed his pace and commitment by following up kicks where most frontrowers show reluctance.
For the Sharks, Ryan Kankowski also gave the Bok selectors some food for thought with his probing runs around the rucks - not to mention his blistering pace in open play.
The first try of the match came less than five minutes from half time when Daniel slipped a pass to JP Pietersen who sped through the Bulls line before off-loading to Sharks skipper Stefan Terblanche who dotted down.
In staying true to Bulls traditions, the men in blue bounced back with a five pointer of their own when wing Gerhard van den Heever was put into space out wide.
Leading 16-13 at the break the Sharks kept the foot on the pedal and capitalised on the silly mistakes that started creeping into the Bulls' game.
Although he started at 15, Lambie was often used as a first receiver and this gave the Sharks options both sides of the pitch.
Another big area of success for the visitors were at the lineouts where they managed to neutralise the threat Bulls captain Victor Matfield posed by keeping the ball in play for as long as possible.
With only three points separating the sides, the Sharks attacked from broken play and found a gap in the Bulls' defence allowing Mvovo to score what turned out to be the match winner.
Not that the Bulls gave it to them on a platter.
From the returning kick-off the home side managed to get their hands on the ball and, with less than four minutes left to play, Francois Hougaard brought his side right back into the match.
The Bulls could, however, not get the three points they needed as the Sharks pack continued to stand strong in one of the most physical matches of the season.
Tries: Gerhard van den Heever, Francois Hougaard
Conversions: Morné Steyn (2)
Tries: Stefan Terblanche, Lwazi Mvovo
Conversions: Pat Lambie, Frederic Michalak
Penalties: Lambie (2), Michalak
Drop goal: Michalak
15 Zane Kirchner, 14 Gerhard van den Heever, 13 Jaco Pretorius, 12 Wynand Olivier, 11 Bjorn Basson, 10 Morné Steyn, 9 Francois Hougaard, 8 Pierre Spies, 7 Dewald Potgieter, 6 Deon Stegmann, 5 Victor Matfield (captain), 4 Bakkies Botha, 3 Werner Kruger, 2 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 1 Dean Greyling
Substitutes: 16 Gary Botha, 17 Rossouw de Klerk, 18 Flip van der Merwe, 19 Danie Rossouw, 20 Fourie du Preez, 21 Francois Brummer, 22 Akona Ndungane
15 Patrick Lambie, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Stefan Terblanche (captain), 12 Meyer Bosman, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Frederic Michalak, 9 Charl McLeod, 8 Ryan Kankowski, 7 Jean Deysel, 6 Keegan Daniel, 5 Alistair Hargreaves, 4 Gerhard Mostert, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Tendai Mtawarira
Substitutes: 16 John Smit, 17 Wiehahn Herbst, 18 Ross Skeate, 19 Willem Alberts, 20 Marcell Coetzee, 21 Adrian Jacobs, 22 Louis Ludik