Five in a Row

The Cell C Sharks’ ambitions of a Currie Cup home semi-final were boosted with their fifth straight victory, a return leg 35-23 win over visiting Toyota ‘Free State at Hollywoodbets Kings Park on Friday evening.

A dominant performance from the Cell C Sharks from start to finish consigned Free State to a second consecutive loss and the bonus point victory means the home side leap-frog the Airlink Pumas – who also suffered back-to-back defeats – to finish the weekend in second position, tie on 38 log points with the log leaders.

A waterlogged pitch, courtesy of unseasonal torrential rain in the preceding 24 hours made life difficult for both sides, but it was the Cell C Sharks who played the conditions better and controlled the game with astute leadership, keeping the scoreboard ticking over and once again showing determined defence that denied Free State the momentum they strived for but never really accomplished.

A Lionel Cronje penalty inside the opening 10 minutes got the scoreboard ticking over after his side had been forced to defend their 22 bravely, without being punished, and then a Free State player, having chirped the referee, saw the penalty marched 10m closer to the tryline and within range of the flyhalf.

Patience was the key in the next score, a determined attack as the ball was taken through 14 phases before a mini break from Henco Venter, a dummy and then great offload to Aphelele Fassi saw the wing over before Cronje added the extras for a 10-0 lead after a quarter hour.

A few minutes later, the Cell C Sharks eighthman was the victim of a clash of heads in the tackle, the visitors reduced to 14 men to add to their woes.

Former Cell C Sharks scrumhalf Ruan Pienaar got his team on the board after 23 minutes of play with a penalty for collapsing the maul, but five minutes later the home side crafted an amazing try, Alwayno Visagie finishing off after the forwards had built dominance at the contact area, Yaw Penxe elusive down the touchline and then a cheeky, but educated chip ahead for the centre to finish off and a 15-3 lead on the half hour.

A second penalty from Cronje stretched the lead to 15 points, but Free State hit back with a strong drive over the line for their opening try and together with the conversion, cut the deficit to eight points with a minute left to play.

After three minutes of extra time, Cronje struck his third penalty to push his team into a 21-10 half-time lead, a thoroughly-deserved advantage, although they would head for the changerooms knowing that they could not rest on their laurels against a competitive Free State side.

The visitors had an early penalty in the second half to restore the eight point margin and then Tiaan Fourie found space from close quarters after Free State had been forced to carry the ball over their tryline under pressure, and the ensuing scrum offered the perfect opportunity to strike, the scrumhalf making no mistake, nor Cronje for a 28-13 lead with 25 minutes remaining.

With the game headed into the final quarter, Free State battled to break some truly amazing defence and when awarded a penalty, opted for the three points rather than the line and possible try, having been thwarted time and again.

With a 12 point gap the Cell C Sharks were in control of the game and a second yellow card, for repeated infringements defending their line, meant Free State were under pressure of conceding the bonus point try. That danger came to pass with seven minutes left on the clock, a third lineout in quick succession and the ensuing maul coming up with the spoils, replacement hooker Dameon Venter in possession. When Cronje converted from the touchline, the 35-16 scoreline was always going to win the game.

Playing for pride, Free State added a second try to their tally, a forward-dominated maul and with the conversion, cutting the lead to 12 points with less than five minutes of this absorbing game remaining.

But they could not add any further score to snatch a late losing bonus point and would have to leave the field knowing that they had been well-beaten.