Cape Town – The Sharks have stretched their Super Rugby lead
over nearest SA conference challengers the Bulls to a gaping nine points with a
match in hand ... and taking it still further looks a pretty strong prospect
You won’t get too many arguments over which of the two has
the easier fixture then: while the Sharks return to Durban to tackle the
second-from-bottom overall Cheetahs, the Bulls start the two-game Australian
phase of their overseas leg against the uncompromising Waratahs in Sydney.
Following two losses in New Zealand plus failure to win
their last Loftus game (the draw against the Chiefs) from a great position, it
cannot be said that the Bulls’ prospects next up are marvellous.
By contrast, the Sharks will be much more heavily tipped to
see off the free-running but also dreadfully porous Cheetahs in their beloved
Bismarck du Plessis and company come off a hard-fought but
ultimately clear-cut 13-point triumph over the fading Lions at Ellis Park on
Saturday night, leaving them comfortably enough atop the overall standings with
one game to go to mark the halfway point of their 16-game ordinary season
Their next assignment sees them take on the peculiar outfit
who have registered the best “points for” (213) of all Super Rugby teams thus
far, but also the worst “points against” (303).
That situation was not helped by Naka Drotske’s charges
letting the Crusaders post 52 against them, including six tries, and again
losing their shape most significantly in the final quarter, as had happened in
the ping-pong against the Chiefs in Bloemfontein only a week earlier.
Although they managed four dot-downs of their own in defeat,
the Cheetahs should not feel too chipper about crossing the Sharks’ whitewash often
next Saturday – a welcome afternoon kick-off for the Kings Park faithful – as
the Sharks are the team with the best defensive record in terms of points
Their aggressive and energetic defence, on relatively rare
occasions that the Lions threatened their try-line, frustrated the home side to
the extent that they began conceding discipline-related penalties more and more
frequently as the Sharks’ superior composure and class helped them turn the
Taking some of the gloss off the victory – a four-try bonus
points was never on the cards – was flyhalf Fred Zeilinga pulling a hamstring
to join Pat Lambie on the No 10 injured list, although that simply meant big
Frans Steyn was able to seamlessly shift one berth closer to the action and
impose himself in all sorts of ways.
He is likely to settle there for the next few weeks; the
Sharks’ casualty situation at pivot will only turn genuinely serious if Steyn –
all touch wood in KZN against it happening! – were to succumb to personal
mishap as well.
Something that may be making all fellow title-chasers
nervous is that the Sharks, for all their intensity and purpose (exemplified by
someone like the tireless and constructive flanker Marcell Coetzee), probably
aren’t even quite the finished article yet in terms of their accuracy and
option-taking on attack: this team potentially has hitherto unseen, extra
strings to its bow.
The overall log at present will give very mixed feelings to
South African observers wishing all our sides to prosper ... in short, they
While the Sharks fly the national flag confidently in the
best real estate overall, the rest of the conference teams now occupy four of
the slots in the bottom eight, even if the Bulls and Lions can still harbour
some hopes of making the playoffs.
But the Pretoria-based outfit igniting their tour against
the Waratahs has become a matter of some urgency – if they crash again and the
Sharks win back home, it will be extremely tempting to pronounce the conference
a one-horse race even with the knowledge that the Sharks still have to go
Nominally, the “main” SA-staged attraction next weekend is
the other derby between the Stormers and Lions. Instead it already looks
suspiciously like a meeting of two also-rans in playoffs terms.
Some consolation is that it could be very close: in
pre-season you’d have considered this a near-banker for the Stormers, but the
Lions – even though successive Ellis Park matches have brought them no log
points – may still believe they have a better than 50-50 crack at winning this
one at Newlands ...
fixtures (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):
Friday: Hurricanes v Blues, 09:35; Rebels v Force, 11:40.
Saturday: Chiefs v Crusaders, 09:35; Waratahs v Bulls, 11:40; Sharks v
Cheetahs, 15:00; Stormers v Lions, 17:05. Byes: Highlanders, Brumbies, Reds.
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