The Sharks returned to winning ways with a 34-10 victory over the Stormers to finish third in the Super Rugby standings on Saturday and set up a playoff qualifier against the Highlanders.
The Durban side needed to beat their South African counterpart by at least 35 points with a four-try bonus point if they were to leapfrog the second-place Crusaders and earn a home semi-final, but were forced to settle for a more modest victory over the resurgent Stormers.
After an even first half saw Stormers flanker Nizaam Carr’s try overshadowed by four Francois Steyn penalties and a Paul Jordaan try, the Sharks spent the second period showing off their dogged defense before wing Sibusiso Sithole and substitute Stefan Ungerer scored in the final five minutes.
The Sharks led the standings for most of the regular season to mark themselves as tournament favorites, but recent defeats dented their campaign and they will host the sixth-place Dunedin-based Highlanders in Durban on Saturday next week.
They will at least do so buoyed by a return to form that saw them become the first South African side to beat the Stormers at home since 2012.
The Stormers, winners of their past four games, were looking to give departing Newlands favorites Gio Aplon, Deon Fourie and Peter Grant a fitting send-off and therefore opted for an attacking game that paid early dividends.
With Sharks flanker Willem Alberts sent to the sin-bin in the 15th minute, the hosts turned down a kickable penalty in favor of a lineout and were rewarded when Carr scored off the back of a rolling maul.
However, Steyn’s boot punished the Stormers for regular misdemeanours as the Sharks took shots at goal instead of pushing for the four tries.
The visitors then took control of the game two minutes before halftime when a Stormers mistake from a scrum led to Jordaan’s try, and Steyn extended the lead to 22-10 with a fifth penalty five minutes after the break.
Although the Stormers spent the next 25 minutes camped in the Sharks’ half, they were unable to crack the visitors’ defense.
The Sharks then showed how clinical they could be as two forays into Stormers territory brought tries from Sithole and Ungerer.
“It’s the mark of a championship side — they created a few opportunities less than us, but finished all of them,” Stormers captain Schalk Burger said.
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