Rugby: Sharks, Bulls snatch top two spots

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The Blues and Crusaders face the daunting task of going to South Africa to play their semifinals after the Sharks and Bulls did enough to clinch the top two spots in the Super 14 this morning.

For the first time in Super rugby history both semifinals will be played in the Republic with the Blues playing the Sharks, who beat the Stormers 36-10 in Cape Town to finish in first place. The Crusaders travel to Loftus Versfeld next week to play the Bulls, who snatched second place from the Canterbury-based side on points differential after smashing the Reds by a record 89 points.

The Sharks made another piece history by becoming the first South African side to finish top of the Super 14 standings.

Should they win their semifinal against the Blues they would also ensure the first South African-hosted final in the 11 years of the competition on May 19.

The Crusaders' unexpected defeat by the Waikato Chiefs in Christchurch on Friday had opened the door for the Sharks and they made no mistake.

Number eight Ryan Kankowski and centre Waylon Murray punished flimsy tackling by scoring tries in the first seven minutes to put the Sharks into a 14-0 lead.

The Stormers fought back to close the gap to four points midway through the first half.

First five-eighths Peter Grant dodged two tackles to score under the crossbar, converting and adding a penalty a minute later to suggest the Sharks might have a fight on their hands.

However the visitors' third try five minutes before the interval - scored in the right corner by Percy Montgomery - reopened the lead.

He kicked a penalty nine minutes after the restart on his way to a 16-point haul as the Sharks set about closing out the game.

Right wing Frans Steyn was on the end of a slick handling move also in the right corner to claim the Sharks' fourth try with a quarter remaining, putting his side 19 points ahead.

The Stormers never gave up but could not breach the Sharks' defence and in the final minute left wing JP Pietersen scored his 11th try of the season when he ran onto the shoulder of first five-eighths Butch James and smashed through two tackles to score by the posts.

Meanwhile, the Bulls, needing an unlikely 72-point victory to secure a home semi-final, achieved their target with room to spare on when they hammered the Reds 92-3 at Loftus Versfeld.

The 89-point winning margin was a Super rugby record, surpassing the 77 set by the Canterbury Crusaders in their 96-19 victory over the New South Wales Waratahs in 2002.

The Bulls' 13 tries were the second highest scored by a team in a single match, falling one short of the Crusaders' record against the Waratahs.

Going into Sunday's match the Bulls knew they had to beat the struggling Australians by 72 points to steal second place from the Crusaders, who they will now meet in Pretoria next week.

Bulls first five-eighths Derick Hougaard scored 25 points from 11 conversions and one penalty while four players scored two tries each.

The Bulls scored five first-half tries before running riot in the second half with eight further tries.

- NZ HERALD STAFF, REUTERS

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