Coastal Sharks’ hopes of topping the Super 15 league suffered a serious setback Saturday when Western Stormers scored a last-gasp drop goal for a shock 21-19 away victory.
Full-back Jaco Taute, a player not known for scoring drop goals, did so 20 seconds into stoppage time to stun the predominantly Sharks-supporting crowd at Kings Park stadium in Durban.
Sharks scored first in the South African derby, turned over 16-9 ahead and never trailed until the last kick of the game gave the 11th-place visitors four unexpected points.
A losing bonus point lifted league leaders Sharks to 45 points, two more than the New South Wales Waratahs and four ahead of record seven-time title-holders the Canterbury Crusaders.
However, the Durban outfit would drop to third if the Australians and New Zealand conference leaders win games in hand at the end of June.
League places are potentially crucial as the team finishing first is guaranteed a home semi-final and, if successful, a home final too.
The side coming third must host a play-off to reach the semi-finals of the southern hemisphere provincial championship.
“We face a difficult finish to the league season with away games against the Cheetahs and Stormers,” admitted Sharks hooker and skipper Bismarck du Plessis.
“South African derbies are always tough and these matches will be no different. However, we need victories if we are going to finish first in the league.”
No. 8 Duane Vermeulen, stand-in skipper with centre Jean de Villiers sidelined for two months by knee trouble, hailed a Stormers side gutted by injuries this season.
“We got stuck in to achieve a great victory. We struggled at some set-pieces early on, but eventually held our own against top-class opponents.”
Although a late season revival by the Stormers marked them as dangerous opponents, Sharks were favoured having returned from away victories over the Crusaders and Auckland Blues.
But it soon became apparent that, as with so many South African derbies, the match would develop into an ‘arm wrestle’ with goal-kicking a key factor.
The sideline ‘sin-bin’ chair is becoming well known to South African players and this match was no exception.
Stormers flank Nizaam Carr got a yellow card after 10 minutes, but his side scored three points and conceded none during his absence.
Another flank, Sharks’ Marcell Coetzee, was temporarily expelled midway through the second half, and the Sharks had a four-point lead trimmed to just one while he was missing.
Sharks centre Francois Steyn and Stormers fly-half Kurt Coleman potted three penalties each before a converted try just before half-time by scrum-half Cobus Reinach gave the hosts a seven-point advantage.
After 64 minutes, the lead was down to 19-18 after Steyn kicked another penalty and Coleman and his replacement, Demetri Catrakilis (twice) slotted penalties.
Steyn failed with two further penalties — one rebounding off the crossbar — before a Stormers surge into Sharks’ territory created the chance for Taute to become the unexpected match-winner.