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Durban – Tries from Keegan Daniel, Charl McLeod, Marcell Coetzee and Ryan Kankowski helped the Sharks mount a strong second-half recovery to book their place in the Super Rugby playoffs with a 34-15 victory over the Cheetahs in Durban on Saturday.
The home side's interest in the competition looked to be quickly slipping away after the opening 40 minutes as they trailed 15-6 thanks to five penalties from the boot of Cheetahs flyhalf Riaan Smit.
But a strong half-time talk from coach John Plumtree seemed to have reinvigorated them and they picked up 28 unanswered points in the second period.
It took the better part of 15 minutes before the deadlock was broken following a physical start, during which both packs tried to assert their dominance.
The coastal outfit went ahead via a 12th minute Frederic Michalak penalty after WP Nel failed to roll away following the first real passage of attacking play from the Sharks.
But the visitors hit back immediately after Coetzee did the same at the other end, with Smit popping over a kick from right in front.
The Cheetahs number 10 put his side in front after 19 minutes when Frans Steyn was sent to the sin bin for a dangerous tackle on Robert Ebersohn.
Lwazi Mvovo was next to err for the home side, who looked to be getting increasingly frustrated by their lack of possession, and after the winger failed to release, Smit stretched the gap further for his side.
When the Sharks finally managed to get forward, on the half-hour mark, they were awarded a penalty, with Heinrich Brussow illegally stealing the ball as Michalak cut the deficit.
McLeod, however, played his opposite number, Piet van Zyl, off the ball in front of the posts moments later, and replacement Willem Alberts gave away another kickable penalty on the stroke of half-time. Both were slotted over by Smit, giving the Free Staters a nine-point cushion at the interval.
Plumtree’s men came out firing after the restart, though, and Daniel scored his sixth try of the season in the 44th minute when he was on the end of an attacking move that began at the kick-off as he went over on the left.
The hosts scored twice more, on either side of the hour mark. JP Pietersen’s burst and kick-ahead first allowed McLeod to cross, before Coetzee sliced through the middle to score underneath the posts.
Kankowski added a bonus-point try when he broke away from the left six minutes from the end to score under the posts and seal the win.
Sharks: Tries: Keegan Daniel, Charl McLeod, Marcell Coetzee, Ryan Kankowski. Conversions: Frederic Michalak (4). Penalties: Michalak (2).
Cheetahs: Penalties: Riaan Smit (5). – Sapa