Sharks edge Loftus battle
The Sharks secured a home semifinal with a tense 18-16 victory in a physical battle with the Blue Bulls at Loftus Versfeld.
The home side scored the only try of the game and held the lead going into the last five minutes, but a late Butch James penalty saw the Sharks snatch victory at the end.
The visitors were shown two yellow cards and were put under pressure at scrum-time, but they squeezed out a victory to severely dent the Bulls' hopes of making the last four.
Veteran flank Jacques Botes equalled Helgard Muller's record of 142 Currie Cup caps, and he got involved early on by winning a turnover on his 22 and finding some space to put Heimar Williams over the advantage line.
The Sharks moved into the Bulls 22 where they put pressure on both their line-out and scrum, and after missing his first two shots at goal flyhalf Fred Zeilinga was finally able to give them an early lead with his third penalty attempt.
Sharks captain Keegan Daniel was playing in his 100th Currie Cup match and he knocked on from the restart to give Bulls flyhalf a chance to level things up at 3-3.
The Sharks were back ahead straight away when Wian Liebenberg obstructed Cobus Reinach next to a ruck in the 22. The Sharks scrumhalf almost followed that up with a try when he charged a kick from Pollard, but he was beaten to the ball by Bjorn Basson.
The home side were on the back foot, and found themselves scrambling on defence in their 22 as the Sharks took the game to them.
Despite their dominance the Sharks could not take advantage and soon found themselves defending their own tryline as the Bulls declined the shot at goal and kicked it into the corner.
But they too came away without anything to show for it, and the Sharks were next to score with Zeilinga having found his radar off the kicking tee.
A big scrum from the Bulls saw Pollard reduce the deficit to 9-6, and the visitors were struck a further blow just before half-time when Botes was shown a yellow card for repeated infringements at the breakdown.
Despite being down to 14 men the Sharks were first to score in the second half through another Zeilinga penalty before making a host of changes as Butch James, Charl McLeod, Danie Mienie and Marcell Coetzee all entered the fray with 30 minutes left.
The Bulls responded by launching an attack in the 22 with a line-out and a scrum just short of the tryline, but the Sharks held out again as they turned the tables at scrum-time.
However, the visitors were reduced to 14 men again when Jean Deysel was sent to the sin bin for going offside at a maul.
That gave the Bulls the boost they needed as they hurled themselves at the Sharks in a few waves before Francois Venter planted the ball on the line for the first try.
Pollard's conversion gave the Bulls the lead for the first time in the match, and with a one-man advantage they were firmly in the driving seat.
A powerful driving maul brought them within range, and once it was brought down by the Sharks Pollard gladly punished them with his penalty stretching the lead to 16-12.
The Sharks hit back with a penalty from Butch James, which set the match up for a thrilling finish with the Bulls ahead 16-15 with ten minutes to play as Deysel returned.
It was frantic stuff as both teams made basic errors with the game in the balance and it was Bulls lock Paul Willemse who gave away the crucial penalty for not rolling away in front of the poles.
James slotted the penalty and the Sharks held on for a tense victory which means they will be playing their semifinal at Kings Park.
Man of the match: It was a highly physical match as is tradition between these two teams, and the Sharks relied heavily on big Jean Deysel to put the opposition on the back foot on both attack and defence.
For the Blue Bulls:
Pens: Pollard 4
For the Sharks:
Pens: Zeilinga 4, James 2
Yellow cards: Jacques Botes (34 mins, repeated infringements) Jean Deysel (60 mins, repeated infringements)
Blue Bulls: 15 Jurgen Visser, 14 Akona Ndungane, 13 William Small-Smith, 12 Francois Venter, 11 Bjorn Basson, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Rudy Paige, 8 Jono Ross (captain), 7 Jacques du Plessis, 6 Wiaan Liebenberg, 5 David Bulbring, 4 Paul Willemse, 3 Frik Kirsten, 2 Mbongeni Mbonambi, 1 Marcel van der Merwe.
Replacements: 16 Bandise Maku, 17 Dean Greyling, 18 Grant Hattingh, 19 Jacques Engelbrecht, 20 Lohan Jacobs, 21 Ulrich Beyers, 22 Sampie Mastriet.
Sharks: 15 SP Marais, 14 Odwa Ndungane, 13 Tim Whitehead, 12 Heimar Williams, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Fred Zeilinga, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Keegan Daniel (captain), 7 Jean Deysel, 6 Jacques Botes, 5 Stephan Lewies, 4 Peet Marais, 3 Wiehahn Herbst, 2 Kyle Cooper, 1 Dale Chadwick.
Replacements: 16 Monde Hadebe, 17 Danie Mienie, 18 Edwin Hewitt, 19 Marcell Coetzee, 20 Charl McLeod, 21 Butch James, 22 Louis Ludik.
Referee: Marius van der Westhuizen
Assistant referees: Quinton Immelman, Attie Buitendag
TMO: Deon van Blommestein