The Cell C Sharks booked the last semi-final berth in the Currie Cup – sponsored by DirectAxis Financial Services – with a bonus-point 48-40 victory against a gutsy Vodacom Blue Bulls outfit at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria on Saturday.
As a result, the Currie Cup Premier Division defending champions will travel to Bloemfontein next week to take on the log-leaders, the Toyota Free State Cheetahs, in their semi-final.
The Xerox Golden Lions will host Tafel Lager Griquas at Emirates Airline Park in Johannesburg in the other semi-final. Kick-off times will be confirmed in due course.
The KwaZulu-Natalians entered the match needing only a bonus point to guarantee a place in the top four, and they had it wrapped up early in the second half as they scored their fourth try.
In the end both teams scored six tries in what proved to be a thrilling finale to the pool stages. This feat was particularly remarkable for the home side, who were down to 14 men for close to 43 minutes after losing Johnny Kotze (centre) to a red card for a dangerous tackle.
The first half was competitive as both teams ran hard on attack and did well to round off their chances, which resulted in six converted tries being scored. Two penalty goals by the Cell C Sharks, however, pushed them 27-21 ahead going into the break.
Junior Springbok scrumhalf Sanele Nohamba opened up the scoring for the Cell C Sharks in the eighth minute with a penalty goal, but the Vodacom Blue Bulls scored the first try of the match minutes later compliments of Kotze, who powered his way through a few defenders.
Nohamba added his second penalty goal soon after, but the hosts again showed that they meant business with Springbok prop Lizo Gqoboka scoring their second try from a pick-and go to push them 14-6 ahead.
The Cell C Sharks struck back with a try thanks to a powerful burst by Springbok prop Thomas du Toit from a pick-and-go to reduce their deficit to one point, but this was cancelled out by Vodacom Blue Bulls flyhalf Manie Libbok, who received the ball close to the tryline and ran a fantastic angle at pace for their third try, which he converted.
The visitors reduced their deficit again through their industrious flanker Jacques Vermeulen, who received a sharp pass in space and stepped on the gas to touch down.
The Vodacom Blue Bulls, however, were dealt a massive blow with three minutes left in the half as Kotze received a red card, and the opposition capitalised on the extra player with Andre Esterhuizen crashing over for a 27-21 halftime lead.
The Cell C Sharks cemented their place in the semi-finals minutes into the second half with their bonus-point try as co-captain Jeremy Ward gathered a slick grubber by experienced Springbok JP Pietersen, and Kobus van Wyk (winger) added another try from a great support run on attack, which inflated their lead to 20 points.
The Vodacom Blue Bulls struck back thanks to a smart long pass to Cornal Hendricks on the wing, which marked their bonus point try, and they continued to show their fighting spirit as the match progressed with Ruan Steenkamp running a good line at pace to cross the chalk, which took them within eight points of the visitors on the scoreboard.
The Cell C Sharks, however, ensured that they had a decent buffer with the clock running down as their replacement back Rhyno Smith dashed through for their sixth try, and this was enough to see them through for the win despite Tim Agaba forcing his way over the tryline for the Vodacom Blue Bulls in the dying seconds.
Vodacom Blue Bulls – Tries: Johnny Kotze, Lizo Gqoboka, Manie Libbok, Cornal Hendricks, Ruan Steenkamp, Tim Agaba; Conversions: Manie Libbok (4), Vaughen Isaacs.
Cell C Sharks – Tries: Thomas du Toit, Jacques Vermeulen, Andre Esterhuizen, Jeremy Ward, Kobus van Wyk, Rhyno Smith; Conversions: Sanele Nohamba (5), Smith; Penalty goals: Sanele Nohamba (2).