The Sharks are still in the hunt for a Super 14 semi-final spot after a 33-14 win over the Cheetahs in Durban on Saturday, in an error-strewn South African derby.
Jacques Botes was the nugget of gold in the mudpile, weighing in with a hat-trick of tries to help his team to victory, but this was not the performance of a Super 14-contending team. The scoreline was utter flattery.
The Sharks play the Chiefs next week, in what is likely to be - pending the result of the Chiefs' visit to the Lions - a winner-takes-all clash for one of the semi-final spots. Had they been up against the Chiefs' free-running backs today, the Sharks would have been slaughtered.
They lost a staggering number of their own line-out throws, and only twice did their three-quarters really cut loose. That their tries all came from one player until the final two mintues rather indicates the inadequacy of the rest of them. But they still won. The Cheetahs were even worse.
Stats tell a tale of first-half dominance for the Durbanites. they had eleven free-kicks or penalties to the Cheetahs' five, and thirteen line-outs to the Cheetahs' five. Including the scrums - four apiece - the Sharks had twice as much set piece ball as their visitors, not to mention numerical advantage for ten minutes after Rory Duncan had been sent to the sin-bin for his second high tackle. That's the kind of platform that ought to yield a bonanza of points.
But things just kept going wrong. A pass from Rory Kockott to JP Pietersen on the blind side went behind the winger despite perfect timing of the run. Odwa Ndungane scored a try, but the move had included an off-the-ball shove by Ryan Kankowski on Jongi Nokwe. A quick line-out move yielded a forward pass. Kockott's break was ended by a kick ahead that went out on the full. Stefan Terblanche knocked on after chasing a high ball that not one of the Cheetahs' back three came forward to claim. Having won a free-kick in the Cheetahs 22 at a scrum, the Sharks pack drove in early and conceded the free-kick right back.
Among the mire were three bits of good play; two tries and a fabulous move, possibly made all the more fabulous by the grim dirge around it. Both tries came of well-driven mauls, with Botes peeling off one after 14 minutes to score, and then supporting Pietersen's break off another on 28 minutes to dot down. Kockott converted both and it was 14-0.
But the Cheetahs stole a precious try back right on the stroke of half-time, with Hennie Daniller running through static defence and Heinrich Brussouw mtaking the ball on, before Juan Smith found Nokwe out wide for the score. Conrad Barnard made it 14-7 at the break.
And of course, there was that move. Francois Steyn broke on an outside line from his own 22, and found Pietersen, who found Adi Jacobs, who found Steyn, who found Nudungane, who found Bismarck du Plessis, who found Terblanche... but then the ball was dropped with the line begging. It is not stretching things to say the move was reminiscent of that 1973 try. Until the anti-climax anyway.
The second half was little better, but it did yield a pulse-quickening finale. Botes crashed over for his third, again taking from Pietersen after a superb pass by Steyn, but the Cheetahs clawed their way back into it bruisingly, and were rewarded when Meyer Bosman pounced on loose Sharks ruck ball and tore away under the posts. At 19-14, the tension went up a few nothces.
It is often the way with the better teams that adversity focuses the mind, and the Sharks, particularly the pack, went about taking their visitors on at their own game. Primarily, it kept the ball away from their own goal-line - the Cheetahs' kicking from hand was generally awful - and it yielded a bonus point at the end, when Ndungane cut through tired defence to go under the posts, and then took an offload to go over in the corner in the final two minutes.
Man of the match: Three tries, and a lot more besides. Jacques Botes.
Moment of the match: That move in the first half. There was barely anything else to see!
Villain of the match: Nothing much went on bar the usual professional ego handbags
For the Sharks:
Tries: Botes 3, Ndungane 2
Cons: Kockott 4
For the Cheetahs:
Tries: Nokwe, Bosman
Cons: Barnard, De Bruyn
Yellow cards: Duncan (12, Cheetahs, repeated infringements), Van den Berg (59, Sharks, slowing the ball)
Sharks: 15 Stefan Terblanche, 14 Odwa Ndungane, 13 Adrian Jacobs, 12 Francois Steyn, 11 JP Pietersen, 10 Ruan Pienaar, 9 Rory Kockott, 8 Ryan Kankowski, 7 AJ Venter (c), 6 Jacques Botes, 5 Johan Ackermann, 4 Albert van den Berg, 3 Brendon Botha, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Tendai Mtawarira
Replacements: 16 Craig Burden, 17 Jannie du Plessis, 18 Steven Sykes, 19 Jean Deysel, 20 Keegan Daniel, 21 Bradley Barritt, 22 Waylon Murray
Cheetahs: 15 Hennie Daniller, 14 Eddie Fredericks, 13 JW Jonker, 12 Meyer Bosman, 11 Jongi Nokwe, 10 Conrad Barnard, 9 Falie Oelschig, 8 Duanne Vermeulen, 7 Juan Smith (c), 6 Heinrich Brussow, 5 Barend Pieterse, 4 Rory Duncan, 3 CJ van der Linde, 2 Adriaan Strauss, 1 Wian du Preez.
Replacements: 16 Richardt Strauss, 17 Bees Roux, 18 David de Villiers, 19 Hendro Scholtz, 20 Tewis de Bruyn, 21 Bevin Fortuin, 22 Hendrik Meyer.
Referee: Willie Roos (South Africa)
Touch judges: JC Fortuin (South Africa), Pro Legoete (South Africa)
Timekeeper: Neville Heilbron (South Africa)