BLOEMFONTEIN, South Africa (AFP) – Coastal Sharks withstood a brave second half comeback by Central Cheetahs to win a Super 15 opening round clash 29-22 Saturday.
Sharks, runners-up to Waikato Chiefs last season, led by 21 points with 30 minutes to go at sun-baked Free State Stadium before Cheetahs finally came alive in an all-South African showdown.
Tries from flank Pieter ‘Lappies’ Labuschagne and new centre Johann Sadie and two conversions and a penalty from fly-half Johan Goosen narrowed the gap to just four points 12 minutes from time.
Many in the 14,500 crowd were dreaming of a Cheetahs victory only for Sharks fly-half Patrick Lambie to complete a memorable individual performance with a close-range penalty that closed the scoring.
Not that Cheetahs gave up without a fight! Full-back Hennie Daniller sprinted forward to grab a kick-off and was stopped just short of the try-line, and a turnover from lock Pieter-Steph du Toit stopped another promising home surge.
But all the Bloemfontein team had to show at the final whistle was a bonus point for losing by fewer than eight points — not the ideal start with an Australasian tour starting next weekend against Chiefs.
“We knew the Cheetahs would come back and I am proud of my team for holding on and getting the win we desperately needed,” said Sharks centre Francois Steyn, the stand-in skipper with loose forward Keegan Daniel injured.
Official man of the match and incumbent Springbok No 10 Lambie, who contributed 19 points from five penalties and two conversions, did not miss a shot at goal and his tactical kicking was often superb.
“I felt really good out there even if my lungs were ready to explode on a few occasions because of the altitude,” he said. “Cheetahs were really formidable opponents with the X-factor all over their backline.”
Cheetahs were first to score with No 8 Philip van der Walt barging over after a line-out, but three Lambie penalties and the conversion of an opportunist Lwazi Mvovo try allowed Sharks to turn 16-5 ahead.
Marcell Coetzee dived over after a forward surge and Lambie converted and added a penalty to push Sharks to a 26-5 lead before a Cheetahs side struggling in the scrums and line-outs clicked.
Cheetahs face Chiefs next Saturday in Hamilton and Sharks host Western Stormers, who lost 25-17 at Northern Bulls Friday, in a repeat of the 2012 semi-final.