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Sharks beat Blues 29-23 to stay atop ladder in Super Rugby

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AUCKLAND, New Zealand - South Africa's Sharks moved closer to a home semifinal in Super Rugby with a 29-23 win over the Blues on Friday, simultaneously eliminating the Auckland-based side from playoffs contention.

Flyhalf Francois Steyn kicked 16 points, contributed to a controversial second-half try, and spent 10 minutes in the sin-bin while ensuring the Sharks won for the third time in four matches on their tour to Australia and New Zealand, and maintained their season-long reign atop the tournament standings.

The Sharks return to South Africa for four matches in which they can cement first place. The Blues, anchored in 10th place before this match, are left to contemplate a season which again has fallen short of the promise of their star-studded roster.

Captain Bismarck du Plessis scored a first-half try for the Sharks, who led throughout the match, though they were twice reduced to 14 men by yellow cards and played a total of 20 minutes with a man down. In that respect, the match was similar to their 30-25 win over the Crusaders in Christchurch last weekend when they played for 64 minutes with 14 men and for 10 minutes with 13 but still posted their first win in Christchurch.

The Sharks, under World Cup-winning Springboks coach Jake White, appear to have developed a pattern and gameplan so economical, settled, and precise that it can be sustained even when they are short-handed.

Some observers of Super Rugby are concerned a tournament win by the Sharks would be a victory for a cynical brand of rugby — unsightly for spectators. The two yellow cards incurred by the Durban-based side on Friday further emphasized the nature of their game — the tendency to slow play and impede opposition ball — but there was still massive admiration for the manner in which they managed to win while reduced to 14 men for a quarter of the match.

The Sharks extended to 10 matches their winning streak over the Blues but, most importantly, return to South Africa with a 3-1 record on tour which ensured they retained first place through the hardest part of their season.

"To be honest we wanted to win four out of four, " du Plessis said. "But three out of four on a hard trip, we're very happy with that.

"What we wanted to do was really put them under pressure at scrum time and lineouts, and we got that in the first half. Second half we were a bit under the pump."

Du Plessis scored his 15th Super Rugby try in the 15th minute of the first half, and scrumhalf Cobus Reinach touched down in the 15th minute of the second, replicating the length-of-the-field, kick-and-chase try that he scored early in the second half of the match against Crusaders.

His try on Friday was equally influential in tipping the match in the Sharks' favour. But it came from what appeared to be offside play and a knock-on by Steyn, which went unobserved by the referee, his assistants or the television match official. The second of Auckland's tries, to winger Tevita Li, also came from what appeared to be a forward pass which was similarly undetected by the officials, and enlarged concern about the refereeing standards this season.

The Sharks lost prop Jannie du Plessis to a yellow card in the 42nd, and the Blues immediately capitalized with a try to their captain, Luke Braid. Steyn was yellow-carded in the 61st and the Blues again scored, through Li, but the home team never gained a lead, and face another finish among the tournament's also-rans.

___

Sharks 29 (Bismarck du Plessis, Cobus Reinach tries; Francois Steyn 2 conversions, 3 penalties, dropped goal, SP Marais penalty), Blues 23 (Luke Braid, Tevita Li tries; Simon Hickey conversion, 2 penalties; Ihaia West conversion, penalty). HT: 16-6.

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