The Sharks won the try-count 3-2 but the Chiefs held on for a hard-fought 24-22 Super Rugby victory at the Yarrow Stadium in New Plymouth on Friday.
It was a much-improved performance by the Sharks compared to last week’s 15-14 win over the Highlanders as they used the ball better and varied their game well.
But the Chiefs wore them down with three second-half penalties by All Black flyhalf Aaron Cruden to deny the Sharks a second triumph on their three-match New Zealand tour.
Gary Gold’s team had the worse possible start when Chiefs centre Seta Tamanivalu took less than a minute to score.
The home side launched their first attack from clean ball off the top at a lineout just outside the Sharks 22, and Cruden flung a long pass to No 12 Anton Lienert-Brown, who popped a short ball to Tamanivalu. The big outside centre burst past the burly frame of André Esterhuizen and ran in untouched to rock the Durban side.
Impressive Sharks pivot Garth April closed the gap with a ninth-minute penalty to take the score to 7-3, but it didn’t take long for the Chiefs to score their second five-pointer.
Following yet another knock-on by No 8 Daniel du Preez, this time inside the Sharks 22, the Chiefs camped on the tryline and despite some tigerish tackling from the visitors, Cruden eventually unlocked the defence with a cut-out pass to No 8 Michael Leitch close to the touchline, and the Japanese captain fell over the whitewash.
It took just four minutes for the Sharks to hit back, though, after Cruden missed touch with a penalty. The Durbanites worked their way into the 22, and after some good ground was made with ball-in-hand, they won another penalty that was kicked to the corner instead of at the posts.
The gamble paid off as hooker Kyle Cooper found lock Stephan Lewies in the middle of the lineout, and the Sharks set an excellent maul for Cooper to barrel over for their opening try.
The Sharks appeared to be finding their rhythm in the second quarter of the game, with their bulky forwards getting the edge in the physical battle. The likes of Dan du Preez, Lourens Adriaanse, Cooper and Dale Chadwick did the hard yards, and it allowed flyhalf April to play on the front foot off scrums and lineouts.
That gave Gold’s side confidence to retain possession and offload in the tackle as well. One such break-out saw the Sharks win a breakdown penalty inside the Chiefs half, and once again they decided to kick it out inside the 22.
After a strong maul and a few hit-ups, the Sharks spun the ball wide to April, who dummied past Brodie Retallick with a sensational step, and then turned Damian McKenzie inside-out to score a brilliant solo try.
The New Zealanders were much better in the tight exchanges in the second half, with All Black star lock Retallick punching big holes in the Sharks defence with ball-in-hand, while the Chiefs scrum improved significantly once Coenie Oosthuizen surprisingly replaced Adriaanse at tighthead prop.
The likes of Leitch, Sam Cane and Hika Elliot also attacked the fringes relentlessly, and scrumhalf Brad Weber was a livewire as well, varying his options and showing a good turn of pace.
All of that gave Cruden the opportunity to bang over three crucial penalties to stretch the Chiefs’ lead to nine points with 10 minutes to go.
The Sharks were desperate, and rallied superbly as they decided to keep the ball-in-hand once more after employing a tactical kicking game in the first quarter of the second half.
It paid dividends as Esterhuizen and Lewies rumbled forward, but Sharks captain Keegan Daniel made a brave decision to kick another penalty out to the corner instead of going for the three points.
The lineout was about seven metres from the tryline, and the Sharks’ perfectly set maul screamed forward like a runaway truck, with replacement hooker Chiliboy Ralepelle emerging as the try-scorer.
April showed his ice-cool temperament as he slotted the difficult angled conversion to make it a two-point game at 24-22 with six minutes left.
But the Chiefs grabbed hold of the ball for the last few minutes, and even turned down a penalty in front of the posts to kill time instead of take three points and give the Sharks a last chance inside their half.
The Durban outfit defended courageously, but they couldn’t force the turnover and had to be satisfied with a losing bonus point.
SCORERS: Chiefs: Tries: Seta Tamanivalu, Michael Leitch. Conversion: Aaron Cruden (1). Penalties: Cruden (4).
Sharks: Tries: Kyle Cooper, Garth April, Chiliboy Ralepelle. Conversions: April (2). Penalty: April (1)