The Airlink Pumas sent out a loud warning to the Toyota Cheetahs that they won’t give up their Carling Currie Cup title without a heck of a fight as their unconquerable spirit saw them triumph 26-20 over the Cell C Sharks in a hard fought semifinal at HollywoodBets Kings Park on Saturday.
Jimmy Stonehouse’s men showed the same tenacity and determination that saw them to their first ever domestic title last year and which saw them triumph over the Windhoek Lager Griquas in Kimberley last week to get them into the playoffs.
Like Munster did in the Vodacom United Rugby Championship, they are showing a steely refusal to lose that will give them a chance in next week’s final in Bloemfontein.
The Airlink Pumas are heading to Bloemfontein for their #CurrieCup defence.
They defeat the Cell C Shark 26-20 in Durban to set up a clash against the Toyota Cheetahs in the final. pic.twitter.com/xVvOT1WPpR— SuperSport Rugby (@SSRugby) June 17, 2023
The Pumas were full value for their win but they nearly gifted it back to the Sharks right at the end. Leading 26-20 they looked untroubled as the clock wound down to three minutes to go, with the Sharks looking nothing short of brain dead tactically, as they continued to kick the ball back into the Pumas half when they should surely have been holding onto the ball.
They were jeered by their own spectators as repeatedly they hoofed the ball back at the Pumas, who couldn’t believe their luck, and just hoofed the ball back. But suddenly there appeared to be some method in the Sharks’ madness, as wing Andrew Kota stepped outside of his 22 in launching a kick directly into touch.
It meant the lineout was formed just outside the Pumas’ 22, and from there the Sharks launched a spirited and sustained attack that took the game to beyond the hooter.
However, the Sharks were down to 14 men due to a 65th minute red card to centre Alwayno Visagie for one of those unfortunate ball in the air incidents that saw Pumas wing Etienne Taljaard fall awkwardly and dangerously after soaring up for a high kick.
DETERMINATION SHONE THROUGH
The Pumas’ determination shone through in those minutes of the prolonged Sharks assault and eventually the Sharks’ attack was shepherded over the left touchline to send the Pumas into wild celebrations that it has to be said were richly deserved.
They only trailed once in the game, and that followed a Lionel Cronje penalty in the 49th minute that edged the Sharks ahead 20-19.
The Durbanites had the advantage then as Taljaard had been yellow carded for the penalty incident, which was a high tackle on Nevaldo Fleurs.
But the Sharks’ discipline was soon to let them down as Henco Venter could be considered lucky not to get a red for the head high tackle that saw him get a yellow.
While it was a 14 versus 14 game, and with the Sharks missing a forward while the Pumas missed a back, the visitors powered over in the left corner for the 55th minute try to hooker PJ Jacobs that effectively became the match clincher.
Up to that point it looked like the Sharks’ scrum might be getting them out of jail as the big men fronted a strong comeback after a poor start to the game.
The Pumas started like they had a train to catch, with a multi-phase buildup leading to a try to loosehead prop Corne Fourie with just over a minute of the game gone.
Tinus de Beer nailed the conversion and the visitors were up 7-0 and a warning had been tellingly struck across the Sharks’ bow.
The Pumas were physical and committed, just like they were when they beat the Griquas the previous week to make the semifinals, and they continued to put it together impressively.
Lionel Cronje did get an opportunity to put the first points on the board for the home team in the 11th minute but his penalty attempt was pushed wide.
The Pumas’ formidable mauling netted them a second try, this time dotted down by the other prop, Simon Raw, not long after that, and at 12-0 down the Sharks were up against it.
They might have calmed their nerves though by recalling that they were in a similar position, in fact 14-0 down, the last time this particular team played together, which was against the Fidelity ADT Lions here two weeks ago, and they came back to win.
SHARKS SCRUM GAVE THEM A CHANCE
They set about rectifying matters through their scrum. Cronje succeeded where he’d failed earlier by kicking a three pointer in the 17th minute, and then came the evident turning point of a powerful Sharks scrum that had referee Marius van der Westhuizen’s arm out for penalty advantage deep inside their own 22.
The Sharks played the advantage and swept upfield, and the Pumas, not for the last time in the game, were jittery when trying to hold onto the ball when scrambling and they conceded a scrum put in inside their own 22.
The Sharks scrum then put in another almighty effort that had the Pumas back wheeling and Van der Westhuizen’s arm out again, but this time the Sharks took full advantage as the forwards drove their impressive young lock Corne Rahl over the line for their first try.
The Sharks were dominant at every scrum for the rest of the half, but were punished for trying to run the ball out near their own tryline when Pumas wing Kota intercepted and scored what could be considered a gift try under the posts.
With 33 minutes gone, it was 19-10 to the Pumas.
It needed a Sharks response and that came about via, surprise surprise, another powerful Sharks scrum. They destroyed the Pumas on their own ball inside the Pumas 22 and from the lineout set up from the penalty it was hooker Fez Mbatha who dotted down off the rolling maul.
Cronje’s conversion was kicked with a minute and a half left in the half so it was with just a two point deficit (19-17) that the Pumas went off for their halftime chat with coach Jimmy Stonehouse.
The Sharks had their chances in the second half but, until they were gifted that good field position by the Pumas mistake in the 77th minute, they never looked likely to win once Visagie was carded and the Pumas will feel they controlled the game well in protecting their six point lead.
On the basis that they scored four tries to two, they were deserved winners as they hold onto their champion status for at least one more week.
Airlink Pumas 26 - Tries: Corne Fourie, Simon Raw, Andrew Kota and PJ Jacobs; Conversions: Tinus de Beer 3.
Cell C Sharks 20 - Tries: Corne Rahl and Fez Mbatha; Conversions: Lionel Cronje 2; Penalties: Lionel Cronje 2.