Springbok-laden Sharks fall short in Challenge Cup try-fest against Cheetahs

Veteran Ruan Pienaar converted three tries and kicked two penalties as the Cheetahs overcame his former side, the Sharks, in Sunday’s Challenge Cup clash in Bloemfontein. Photo: Charle Lombard/BackpagePix

Veteran Ruan Pienaar converted three tries and kicked two penalties as the Cheetahs overcame his former side, the Sharks, in Sunday’s Challenge Cup clash in Bloemfontein. Photo: Charle Lombard/BackpagePix

Published Dec 17, 2023


The Cheetahs produced a display of guts and glory to outlast the Sharks 32-29 in Bloemfontein on Sunday in the most enthralling of contests.

It was a massive statement from a Cheetahs team that is perennially treated as the poor relations in South African rugby and their win shows that they belong at the top table. At the same time, the Sharks have taken a depressing step backward in their journey under John Plumtree and they continue winless away from home this season in both the URC and the Challenge Cup.

Most worrying for Plumtree is that in the first half especially, his team was out-passioned by the Cheetahs, outplayed and outclassed too, and there is too much deadwood in this Sharks squad, and the sooner it is dumped the better.

In the first half, it was a sleek bullet train in orange outstripping by miles a chugging old steam train in black and white.

The Cheetahs were easily more urgent, and with rugged loosies Jeandre Rudolph and Gideon van der Merwe in the vanguard, they had the Sharks rattled.

The 39-year-old former Shark, Ruan Pienaar, was masterful behind a determined pack that won 75 percent of possession in the first 30 minutes.

But it took the home team 18 minutes to get it right on the scoreboard when hooker Marnus van der Merwe scored after a clever lineout move where he took the ball back from a short throw-in near the line. Pienaar converted.

It had been one-way traffic in the first quarter and the Sharks needed a response. They got in the form of their go-to man Eben Etzebeth, who rumbled over for a try from one of the first lineouts the Sharks got right.

But that did not signal a turn of the tide. The Cheetahs continued outplaying their visitors, even in the set scrums, and their tactic of putting the ball behind the backline defence with grubbers and chips created havoc and it was a question of time before the scrambling defence failed. And when it did, Van der Merwe gathered and scored in the corner.

The Cheetahs were unlucky not to score their third try a short while after Daniel Kasenda had a foot in touch thanks to a splendid cover tackle by Francois Venter before passing to Ruan Pienaar. But a minute later Pienaar nudged over a penalty for a 15-7 half-time lead that flattered the stuttering Sharks.

Venter, who had saved a try late in the first half, finished superbly for his team — after an excellent breakout from their half — for the first points of the second half, and much needed they were for the Sharks.

Pienaar landed his second penalty to keep his team clear at 18-12 but the spark at last came for the Sharks from the likeliest source — the livewire Grant Williams — who wriggled through a series of minute gaps off the back of a lineout maul.

Bosch’s conversion meant the Sharks led for the first time in the match, in the 55th minute, and two minutes later a well-taken 50m penalty extended the lead to 22-18.

The Cheetahs were far from done and their never-say-die attitude paid off when the backs dropped the ball and replacement opensider Daniel Maartens gathered and scampered to the posts.

The Sharks reacted sweetly when Phepsi Buthelezi broke clean for a 40m run before the ball was kick-passed by Bosch to Mapimpi for a lovely try.

The Sharks had the opportunity to close out the game at 29-25 and deep territory advantage but sloppy play allowed the Cheetahs to gain ground and Pienaar did brilliantly to put away winger Cohen Jasper down the blind side of a ruck for the match-winning try.


Cheetahs 32 — Tries: Marnus van der Merwe, Gideon van der Merwe, Daniel Maartens, Cohen Jasper. Conversions: Ruan Pienaar (3). Penalties: Pienaar (2).

Sharks 29 — Tries: Eben Etzebeth, Francois Venter, Grant Williams, Makazole Mapimpi. Conversions: Curwin Bosch (3). Penalties: Bosch

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