Durban — You have to love the indomitable Pumas. The minnows from Mbombela were written off going into the Currie Cup semi-final in Durban but showed incredible grit to ground out a 26-20 victory over the fancied Sharks. They will play the Cheetahs in next week’s final in Bloemfontein.
During the week, Sharks coach Joey Mongalo warned that the Pumas are not reigning champions for nothing and that they would not give up their title without one heck of a fight. They were not hollow words.
Jimmy Stonehouse, the Pumas’ talismanic coach, has been around the block countless times and he got it right over Mongalo, the up-and-coming coach who will learn plenty from this match.
The Pumas got their tactics spot on in taking the game to a Sharks team that spent too much time trying to box cleverly and not even going for the knock-out.
The Pumas enjoyed a dream start when loosehead prop Corne Fourie scored within the first minute after the Sharks had fumbled near their line from the kick-off.
The Pumas had clearly come to play and their positivity was rewarded when they kicked a penalty to the corner and backed themselves to score, with tighthead prop Simon Raw burrowing over.
Lionel Cronje kicked a penalty on 17 minutes after he had earlier fluffed an easy attempt but the Pumas hit straight back when lively winger Andrew Kota intercepted and raced to the posts.
The Sharks forwards were starting to take control and when they won a scrum penalty, it went to the corner and hooker Fez Mbatha cruised over for a maul try that has become his trademark.
The Pumas had a slender 19-17 lead at halftime but the increasing influence of the Sharks’ forwards was ominous.
The Sharks took the lead eight minutes into the half when Cronje kicked a penalty after Pumas wing Etienne Taljaard had been yellow-carded for a high tackle. It had taken 48 minutes for the Sharks to lead the Pumas.
Taljaard had barely sat down in the sin bin when the Sharks’ No 8, Henco Venter, joined him because of a high tackle of his own.
The consequent penalty would have been an easy three points for De Beer but again the Pumas backed themselves to score from the lineout maul. They went to the corner and hooker PJ Jacobs went over, with De Beer’s conversion making it 26-20.
There was a potentially pivotal moment with fifteen minutes to go when Sharks centre Alwyno Visagie was red-carded for a collision with Taljaard. The latter had gone up into the air to field a high ball and the ruling was that Visagie did not retreat.
The semi-final built to a crescendo when the Sharks took the ball through 28 phases but the Pumas hung on.
Sharks 20 — Tries: Corne Rahl, Fez Mbatha. Conversions: Lionel Cronje (2). Penalties: Cronje (2).
Pumas 26 — Tries: Corne Fourie, Simon Raw, Andrew Kota, PJ Jacobs. Conversions: Tinus de Beer (3).