The Coastal Sharks are one bonus-point victory away from the Super 15 playoffs after defeating fellow South Africans the Northern Bulls 32-10 at Kings Park on Friday.
They host the Central Cheetahs next Saturday in another South African derby and another bonus-point triumph will assure them of place in the knockout phase, possibly at the expense of title holders the Queensland Reds from Australia.
The Bulls can also qualify with a bonus-point home win over the bottom-of-the-table Golden Lions, while the Western Stormers are set to top the South African conference and secure a bye into the semi-finals.
The Sharks had to win the penultimate-round match to have any hope of finishing among the top six, after the league phase of the southern hemisphere competition, and laid their victory foundations during the opening half.
Gaining the upper hand from the kick-off through their rampant pack, the Durban franchise scored two tries via Springboks Bismarck du Plessis (hooker) and J.P. Pietersen (right wing) to turn over 20-3 ahead.
A further try from flank and captain Keegan Daniel four minutes into the second half stretched the advantage to 22 points, before the three-time champions Bulls hit back with a try from fullback Zane Kirchner.
Flyhalf Morne Steyn converted to cut the deficit to 25-10 and the home team had to withstand wave after wave of attacks from the Pretoria franchise before breaking out to score the bonus-point fourth try two minutes from time.
The Sharks won a lineout deep in Bulls territory and after several attempts to score were repulsed, scrumhalf Charl McLeod threw a long pass to fullback Louis Ludik and he dived over for a try replacement that back Meyer Bosman converted.
Former France flyhalf Frederic Michalak kicked two conversions and a penalty before retiring with an injured right shoulder on 73 minutes and inside center Francois Steyn planted a 55m first-half penalty between the posts.
Sharks showed no ill effects of not having played since June 2, with the Durban team having a bye last weekend after a three-week break for the traditional mid-year Tests.
They won without several injured stars, including flyhalf Patrick Lambie, lock Steven Sykes and tearaway flank Willem Alberts, one of the stars when South Africa defeated England 2-0 in a three-Test series last month.
Daniel heaped special praise on Japan-bound No. 8 Ryan Kankowski, whose herculean efforts in a brutal physical battle earned him the the man of the match award.
“I am so proud of the boys — especially Ryan — and we are going to miss him when he goes overseas. This performance demonstrated that we have strength in depth,” said an exhausted, but smiling skipper.
Bulls captain and No. 8 Pierre Spies had no excuses.
“We could never get going and the better team won. The Sharks were hungrier than us and we battled to get out of our half during the opening 40 minutes,” he said.