French international Frederic Michalak played a key role as the Coastal Sharks earned a place in the Super Rugby playoffs with a stunning 26-23 win over defending champions the Northern Bulls at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday.
Michalak was selected at flyhalf ahead of in-form Patrick Lambie, who moved to fullback as the Sharks rung the changes after showing mediocre form in recent weeks.
Michalak’s quick passing and unpredictability, and Lambie’s incursions from the back kept the Bulls under pressure and the home team were never in front in what was effectively a knock-out game for the sixth and final playoff place.
For the Bulls it could be the end of an era.
Captain Victor Matfield thanked supporters in the 50,000 crowd for what he said had been a “fantastic 10 years,” as he and fellow stars Bakkies Botha and Fourie du Preez may have played their last games for the Pretoria franchise.
The loss ended a six-match winning streak by the Bulls, who have won three of the last four southern hemisphere championships.
Not even a laser-wielding Bulls fan could stop the Sharks.
Lambie said he had noticed a laser being shone into his eyes as he lined up place-kicks, but said the distraction was not to blame for him missing three out of six kicks, which resulted in Michalak taking over the kicking in the final quarter.
Both teams scored two tries and the Bulls struck back twice within three minutes of the Sharks crossing their line.
The Sharks went into a 16-6 lead three minutes before halftime when J.P. Pietersen came in from the blindside wing and made a searing break, which led to a try by Sharks captain Stefan Terblanche.
However, the Bulls pulled it back to 16-13 when winger Gerhard van den Heever went over in the corner after the halftime hooter and flyhalf Morne Steyn converted.
The Bulls threatened to take a familiar ascendancy early in the second half, but the Sharks tackled ferociously and made probing attacks when in possession.
They seemed to have wrapped up the points when Lambie came into the line from fullback and the ball was fed to winger Lwazi Mvovo, who dove over in the corner.
Michalak landed the conversion to put the Sharks 26-16 ahead with six minutes left.
Once again the Bulls came straight back. Francois Hougaard, who had started at scrumhalf but moved to wing when du Preez came on, scored and Steyn’s conversion reduced the margin to three points.
It set up a tense finish to a bruising match because the Bulls would have reached the playoffs had the match been drawn, so they only needed a penalty or a drop-goal to squeeze past their rivals.
However, the Sharks held on to earn an away match against the Canterbury Crusaders next weekend.
Stormers 44, Cheetahs 34
Western Stormers secured an automatic Super Rugby semi-final place by defeating fellow South Africans the Central Cheetahs on Saturday in the final regular-season match.
Flyhalf Peter Grant returned after a lengthy absence to kick 24 points for the winners whose tally was completed by a try each from fullback Gio Aplon, center Juan de Jongh, replacement Nick Koster and left wing Bryan Habana.
Table toppers the Queensland Reds of Australia are also straight through to the semi-final stage of the southern hemisphere championship and will enjoy home advantage along with the Cape Town franchise.
The Reds completed the 16-match schedule with 66 points followed by the Stormers (63), the Canterbury Crusaders (61), the Auckland Blues (60) and the New South Wales Waratahs and Coastal Sharks with 57 each.
New Zealand will host both quarter-final matches next weekend with seven-time title holders Crusaders confronting the Sharks, while the Blues tackle the Waratahs from Australia.
“We were in the privileged position of knowing what was needed to secure direct entry to the semis and now we can put our feet up, have a few beers and then start preparing,” Stormers skipper and flank Schalk Burger said.
“Cheetahs are a great attacking side and we did well to secure a bonus-point victory over them. Having a bye next weekend will allow sore bodies to recover although it does not look too good at the moment for Duane Vermeulen,” he added.
No. 8 Vermeulen, a strong contender for a place on the Springboks World Cup squad, was driven off the field injured during the second half, before a large crowd at a chilly Free State Stadium.
Official man-of-the-match Grant joked that he had considered not wearing the No. 10 jersey given the number of injuries suffered by Stormers flyhalves this season.
Left wing Rayno Benjamin scored three tries for Cheetahs and No. 8 Davon Raubenheimer one with flyhalf Sias Ebersohn providing the rest of the points from four conversions and two penalties.
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