Sharks into Super Rugby playoffs, 1 more spot up for grabs
The Sharks became the seventh team into the Super Rugby playoffs by beating the Sunwolves 40-29 on Friday, leaving one last spot up for grabs in the knockout stage, to be decided on the final day of league games.
That last finals place will come from the Australian conference, and will either go to the ACT Brumbies or New South Wales Waratahs. It'll be decided on Saturday when the Brumbies host last-place Aussie team the Western Force, needing just a draw to be sure of qualifying.
The Durban-based Sharks sealed the wild card from the South African conference, although they had to fight off a solid challenge from Japan's Sunwolves, who have won just once all season but were only two points behind at 21-19 at halftime.
The Sunwolves scored twice in three minutes just before the break through center Mifiposeti Paea and a short-range drive from hooker Takeshi Kizu. That meant they matched the Sharks' three tries in the first 40 at Kings Park.
Stung into action, the Sharks scored early in the second when an attack down the right wing was finished off by center Andre Esterhuizen. The Sharks pulled away in the last 10 minutes to ultimately win comfortably.
The six-tries-to-four win didn't deliver a bonus point for the Sharks, but the victory was enough to ensure that the Pretoria-based Bulls cannot overtake them when they play on Saturday.
The Sharks joined the Johannesburg-based Lions and Cape Town-based Stormers in the quarterfinals from South Africa. Four teams from New Zealand are in the playoffs: Chiefs, Crusaders, defending-champion Highlanders, and Hurricanes.
Although there's only one team left to add to that list, there's still plenty to play for on Saturday, with the final league positions deciding who meets who in the quarters.
The Lions have sent an under-strength team to Argentina to finish against the Jaguares, and could lose their No. 1 spot right at the end to the Chiefs, who are away to the Highlanders.
Earlier, in a match with three penalty tries, the Auckland-based Blues beat New South Wales 34-28 to leave the Waratahs as longshots of reaching the playoffs.
A week after beating the Brumbies, the Blues scored five tries and the Waratahs four — two penalty tries to the Waratahs, one to the Blues — to likely knock New South Wales out of the quarterfinals.
The Waratahs needed to win to keep pace with the Brumbies in the race for what will be the only qualifying place from Australia. But the Brumbies now need only a point from their match on Saturday against the Force to get a home playoff in Canberra.
For a team that had to win with a bonus point to have any real chance of making the playoffs, the Waratahs played no attacking rugby until the 60th minute when Wallabies center Israel Folau scored their first legitimate try. They had previously been awarded two penalty tries for infringements by the Blues at scrums.
"We just put pressure on ourselves," Waratahs captain Michael Hooper said. "We'd get a really nice try and then teams get a try straight back on us, and we're back to an even playing field."
The Blues have played their last match this season after missing the playoffs but they finished strongly with wins over Australia's two top teams.
"We know we didn't play as pretty as last week," Blues captain James Parsons said. "It probably wasn't as clinical as we would like."
In a match involving Australian conference teams with no chance of reaching the playoffs, the Melbourne Rebels beat the Queensland Reds 31-28.