PRETORIA (AFP) – Northern Bulls survived last-minute drama to defeat Coastal Sharks 20-19 in an all-South Africa Super 15 thriller Saturday and go top of the table with one round left.
Sharks full-back Riaan Viljoen missed a late close-range, angled penalty to trigger a collective sigh of relief from many in the large Loftus Versfeld stadium crowd.
The final whistle blew almost immediately and the Pretoria outfit won a southern hemisphere provincial championship encounter they seemed set to lose for most of the second half.
Victory lifted the Bulls to 63 points, two more than defending champions Waikato Chiefs of New Zealand and four ahead of ACT Brumbies of Australia with each side having one fixture to play.
Bulls travel to Cape Town for a July 13 showdown with Western Stormers needing a win to be sure of finishing first, playing their semi-final at home and, if successful, hosting the final at Loftus as well.
Chiefs are away to fellow New Zealanders Auckland Blues at Eden Park and Brumbies travel from Canberra to coastal city Perth for a clash with lowly Western Force.
"My nerves are shot," admitted Bulls skipper and No.8 Dewald Potgieter. "It was always going to be a close match that could have gone either way. We need to examine the breakdown area where we were penalised severely."
Opposing No.8 and Sharks skipper Keegan Daniel said: "I'm extremely proud of our performance, especially the way we defended in the closing stages. Having two players sin binned hurt us badly."
Sharks turned a 13-8 half-time deficit into a six-point lead on 55 minutes when right-wing Odwa Ndungane -- whose twin brother Akona was playing for the Bulls -- pounced on a lucky bounce and dived over.
As the Bulls finally won some possession in the closing stages they mounted sustained pressure that brought out the best in the Sharks defence until replacement scrum-half Jano Vermaak scored a try seven minutes from time.
Fly-half Morne Steyn, who tops the Super 15 scorers charts with 222 points, converted from in front of the posts to edge the three-time champions into the lead.
Back came the Sharks, despite being reduced to 14 men for the second time in the match when fly-half Butch James was sin-binned, and Viljoen was given a chance to snatch victory when replacement prop Frik Kirsten collapsed a scrum.
While Steyn kicked two penalties and converted tries by left-wing Bjorn Basson and Vermaak for a 100 percent goal-kicking record, Sharks centre Patrick Lambie had an off-day, missing four of seven shots at goal.
Viljoen also failed with a 55-metre first-half effort as the Sharks put aside recent boardroom drama that led to New Zealand-born coach John Plumtree parting ways with the Durban outfit.
Apart from goal-kicking failures, Sharks were let down by indiscipline with hooker Bismarck du Plessis, starting a Super 15 match for the first time this season after an injury lay-off, yellow carded during the opening half.
Lambie, switched back to centre to accommodate 2007 Rugby World Cup medal winner James as playmaker, contributed 14 points from a try and three penalty goals.