MELBOURNE, Australia - The Sharks secured their place atop the Super Rugby table for another week with a hard-fought 22-16 win over the Melbourne Rebels on Friday.
JP Pietersen scored the Sharks' only try and Frans Steyn kicked a conversion and five penalties as the Durban-based side became the first South African team to win outside its own country this season.
The Cheetahs, Bulls and Stormers collectively have lost 12 matches in Australia in New Zealand but the Sharks bucked that trend to embellish their one-point lead atop the championship ladder.
With Friday's win, they moved five points ahead of the ACT Brumbies and improved their points differential to plus 94, likely making it impossible for the Brumbies to head them off when they play the Crusaders later in this round.
A dour first half resolved itself into an exchange of penalties: Steyn kicked five from five for the Sharks, and Jason Woodward kicked two from two for the Rebels as the visitors took a 15-6 lead to the break.
Woodward added another goal to trim the lead to 15-9 after 54 minutes but the Sharks then stepped up their game. They attacked with more energy and focus, forced a turnover and scored the try in the 63rd minute which separated the teams.
The Rebels paid heavily for turning over possession throughout the match but most heavily when Lwazi Mvovo linked with Pietersen from a Melbourne error to create the winning try.
The Rebels hit back with a try to replacement Pat Leafa in the 70th, and Woodward added a conversion from the sideline to cut the lead to six points. They finished the match hot on attack but, in an ending symptomatic of their performance, Melbourne turned over the ball close to the Sharks line to concede their last hope of victory.
The Sharks were able to hold on for their eighth win from 10 matches while the Rebels took the small consolation of a bonus point for a loss by fewer than seven points.
"We're very happy to win our first match on tour and happy to win away from home," Sharks captain Bismarck du Plessis said. "There's a lot of talk from other sides (about the difficulty of winning away from home) but it's our first game and our first win and we only worry about ourselves."
The Rebels stayed in fourth place in the Australian conference, a point ahead of 2011 champions the Queensland Reds who were beaten 44-14 by the Blues earlier on Friday. They had the winning of Friday's match but constant handling errors and turnovers at breakdowns cost them a major scalp.
"You can't go into a game with that many knock-ons and expect to win, simple," Rebels captain Scott Higginbotham said. "We did play with the right gameplan — get in behind them and keep moving — but we'd get in behind them and knock the ball on."
Sharks 22 (JP Pietersen try; Francois Steyn conversion, 5 penalties), Melbourne Rebels 16 (Pat Leafa try; Jason Woodward conversion, 3 penalties). HT: 15-6.
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