WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) -- The Sharks showed fortitude that might carry them to their first Super Rugby title when, reduced to 14 for most of the match and to 13 in the second half, they beat the Crusaders 30-25 in a round in which the campaigns of their closest rivals suffered setbacks.
Just as their season began to stall with losses to the Highlanders and ACT Brumbies, the Sharks produced a performance of outstanding character to achieve their first ever win over the Crusaders in Christchurch and to become the first team from South Africa or Australia to win there in 50 matches.
Flanker Jean Deysel was sent off in the 17th minute and Willem Alberts was sin-binned in the 64th but the Sharks still found the means, with that double handicap, to win the match with a late try to replacement Kyle Cooper.
The win lessened two of the most serious reservations about the Sharks' ability to win the Super Rugby title, doubts which had lingered despite their season-long reign in first place. They demonstrated both the ability to win away from home and to beat the best of New Zealand's sides and, in doing so, dramatically firmed their claims to a home semifinal which might be critical to their title bid.
Coach Jake White applauded his team's performance and also tried to dampen the fallout from Deysel's action. Deysel will face the SANZAR judiciary on Monday, as will Ed Donoghue who was sent off for raking the eyes of an opponent during the match between the Melbourne Rebels and Queensland Reds, conceding the penalty that gave the Rebels a 30-27 win.
"Firstly, we apologize," White said. "That's not the way we want to play.
"As a franchise we are not proud of that. I don't enjoy that, I don't coach like that, and I don't enjoy sitting there when you almost don't have a contest before it starts.
"But I must say that I am proud of the ticker the boys showed. To play with 13 guys at one stage against a championship side like this ... it is very pleasing to me."
The Crusaders had been on a five-match winning streak, surging into contention for their eighth Super Rugby title, but Saturday's loss highlighted their current limitations, especially their lack of tactical flexibility. They stuck to a failing gameplan even when the Sharks were down to 13 men.
"I thought it was a really, really poor performance," Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder said. "Right from the very start. I don't know why. There's going to be some hard questions asked."
The Sharks' title bid was substantially assisted by the form of other South African teams during the 14th of 19 regular season rounds. The Cheetahs upset the second-place ACT Brumbies 27-21 in Bloemfontein to enlarge the Sharks' lead to five points, and the Cape Town-based Stormers beat the previously fifth-place Western Force 24-8, tripping up both Australian teams in their run to the playoffs.
The Dunedin-based Highlanders beat the Hurricanes 18-16 in Wellington to climb three rungs to fourth place on the ladder and to tip the Hurricanes out of the top six.
Those results left the Sharks, Brumbies and Chiefs atop their respective regional conferences and still occupying the first three placings on the ladder. The Highlanders are next, in fourth place, ahead of the Crusaders and Force, who have the same points as the seventh-place Hurricanes.
The New South Wales Waratahs have the chance to move inside the top six on Sunday when they play the Johannesburg-based Lions in Sydney. The Hurricanes, Waratahs, Bulls and Blues are all within six points of sixth place, and retain chances of making the playoffs.
The Hurricanes must play the defending champion Chiefs twice and conference rivals the Crusaders and Blues once each in their last four matches, needing to do as much as possible in those matches to secure a top-six place because they have a bye in the final round.
The Highlanders have five matches remaining but two of those are against the Crusaders; the Waratahs have difficult assignments against the Brumbies, Highlanders and Chiefs; the Force's remaining opponents include the Brumbies and Chiefs, and the Crusaders have the Highlanders -- twice -- and the Hurricanes, Blues and Force.
The Sharks face the Blues in Auckland next weekend in the final match of a tour to New Zealand and Australia from which they have so far taken two wins astride a loss to the Brumbies. They then finish the season with two matches against the Stormers and one against the Cheetahs.