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Sharks edge Bulls to claim play-off place
ESPNscrum Staff
June 18, 2011
Crusaders captain Kieran Read lifts the New Zealand Conference Super Rugby trophy, Crusaders v Hurricanes, Super Rugby, Westpac Stadium, Wellington, New Zealand, June 18, 2011
Crusaders skipper Kieran Read lifts the New Zealand conference trophy © Getty Images
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The battle for the Super Rugby play-offs reached a dramatic climax on Saturday with the stage now set for the new-look finals format.

The Reds and the Stormers will enjoy home advantage in the semi-finals and a week off after claiming the top two spots in the overall Super Rugby table while the Blues will entertain the Waratahs and the Crusaders will play host to the Sharks when the play-offs get underway next weekend.

The Stormers, already assured of the South Africa conference title, reclaimed second place in the overall table with a 44-34 victory over the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein. Tries from fullback Gio Aplon, centre Juan de Jongh, replacement Nick Koster and winger Bryan Habana carried the visitors to a valuable victory that robbed the Crusaders of the runners-up spot that their victory over Hurricanes earlier in the day had brought them. More to follow...

Earlier in the day, the Sharks booked their place in the post-season at the expense of defending champions the Bulls with a 26-23 victory in a dramatic shoot-out in Pretoria. In a thrilling match, the Sharks produced their most assured performance of the season to end the Bulls six-game winning run and their title defence in epic style. The boot dominated an intense opening period with Sharks fullback Patrick Lambie and Bulls fly-half Morne Steyn exchanging penalties before a drop goal from former French international Frederic Michalak extended the visitors' lead. Steyn reduced the arrears before Sharks veteran Stefan Terblanche silenced the home crowd with the opening try of the game. Lambie converted but the Bulls had the final say in the half with a try of their own through winger Gerhard van den Heever and Steyn's conversion made it a three-point game at the break.

There was no let up in the intensity in the second half with Steyn dragging his side level before Michalak edged the Sharks ahead once more. The game then took a decisive swing towards the Sharks with a try from winger Lwazi Mvovo with less than ten minutes remainig and the extras from Michalak gave them a 10-point cushion heading into the closing stages. But back came the Bulls with scrum-half Francois Hougaard crossing and Steyn slotted the conversion to bring them to within three points but they would not get any closer.

The Crusaders claimed the New Zealand Conference title with a 16-9 victory over the Hurricanes in their clash in Wellington. A try from centre Robert Fruean and the kicking exploits of fly-half Dan Carter and scrum-half Andy Ellis were enough to see off the 'Canes and pip the Blues to New Zealand's bragging rights.

The key moment came early in the second half on the back of a brilliant kick return from the in-form Crusaders winger Zac Guildford, who sliced through the defensive line before offloading to Fruean to score the only try of the match. That took the 'home' team - this was a Crusaders home match - out to a 13-6 lead and Ellis, one of the best players on the park, sealed the result with 10 minutes remaining when he nonchalantly potted a dropped goal from the base of a ruck about 45m out while under a penalty advantage. For the Hurricanes, this was a much improved effort and a hint of what might have been during a torrid season, which has seen them win just five of 16 matches. Five long-serving and key players - Ma'a Nonu, Andrew Hore, Neemia Tialata, John Schwalger and Rodney So'oialo - were making their last appearance for the Hurricanes.

Elsewhere, the Waratahs climbed into the play-off picture with a thumping 41-7 victory over the Brumbies in Sydney. Tries from winger Lachie Turner, lock Sitaleki Timani, replacements Chris Alcock and Sosene Anesi and No.8 Dave Dennis saw the hosts leap-frog both the Sharks and the Bulls in the race for the post-season with their South Africa rivals set to meet later today in a straight shoot-out for the remaining play-off place. Replacement Francis Fainifo grabbed a late consolation score for the Brumbies that was converted by fly-half Matt Giteau in his last act on the Super Rugby stage before heading to French side Toulon later in the year.

The Reds rounded out an impressive regular season with a 19-11 victory over the Chiefs in their clash in Hamilton. A try from flanker Liam Gill and 14 points from the boot of fly-half Quade Cooper proved enough to see off the resilient hosts who grabbed a late try from No.8 Fritz Lee to add to two Stephen Donald penalties. As a result departing Chiefs coach Ian Foster, captain Mils Muliaina and wing Sitiveni Sivivatu leave the franchise on a losing note.

The early signs were ominous for the Chiefs as 19-year-old flanker Gill barged over the line in just the sixth minute after a series of pick and drives by his fellow forwards. Cooper's conversion followed before the Chiefs' hopes took another blow with a yellow card for lock Romana Graham for a professional foul. Cooper turned the screw with a penalty a few minutes later opened up a 10-point difference and the home side lost Sivivatu to a shoulder injury before Donald dragged them back into the contest with two penalties, the first of them from 48m. Three further penalties from Cooper stretched the Reds' lead after the break before Lee barged his way over for a try to offer hope of a late turnaround but it was not to be.

The Blues confirmed their place in the play-offs with a 33-16 victory over the Highlanders in Auckland on Friday night. Tries from fly-half Stephen Brett, centre Luke McAlister and fullback Jared Payne saw the Blues snap a four-match losing streak and climb temporarily into second place in the over Super Rugby table.

The Highlanders began brightly and took an early lead thanks to a try from Matt Saunders before Blues winger Lachie Munro found his range in difficult conditions to put his side on the board with a penalty. A drop goal from fly-half Tony Brown extended the Highlanders lead but they were not ahead for long. Brett and McAlister both crossed in a four minute spell, with Munro adding the extras, but Brown kept the visitors in touch with a penalty before the break. Payne grabbed the Blues' third try shortly after the re-start and Munro's boot stretched their advantage but the bonus point try would elude them with two further penalties, either side of a second try for Saunders, rounding out the scoring.

In the Friday's other game, the Western Force edged out their Australian rivals the Melbourne Rebels 27-24 in a hard-fought clash at AAMI Park. The first half was a largely scrappy affair with three penalties from Force fly-half James Stannard as opposed to two from opposite number Danny Cipriani giving the visitors a narrow advantage.

The kicking duel continued in the second half with the Rebels pulling level before the Force took control of the contest with tries from winger David Smith and then Stannard. But the Rebels rallied with hooker Adam Freier burrowing over for a try that was converted by Stirling Mortlock. The veteran centre then pounced for a try of his own after the Force had coughed up the ball inside their own 22 but he was unable to add the extras. With the scores tied and the game in the balance, it was the Force who struck the telling blow with a penalty two minutes from time from replacement Willie Ripia.

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