Gavin Rich - SuperSport
Johannesburg - This week could settle the race for top spot on the ABSA Currie Cup log, and the following week could well determine who ends second.
GALLERY: Sharks - potent in pink
That was the upshot of another exciting round of matches, with the Sharks responding well this past Saturday to the challenge laid down by Western Province’s big win over the Pumas in Nelspruit the night before.
What the Sharks’ 30-16 win over the Cheetahs which included a four try bonus point means for the Durbanites is that they retain their eight point lead at the top of the log. With just three matches to go, it looks unlikely they will be caught – but that could change dramatically if the resurgent Lions beat them in Johannesburg this coming weekend.
Province play the Sharks at Newlands in their last match, and a defeat for the Sharks at Coca Cola Park will bring them back within range and could set up the final league match as a play-off for top spot and the right to host the final should the winning team get that far.
The Sharks’ other match is against the Leopards in Durban, and they should get a full-house of five log points from that, so this coming weekend’s game is the last stepping stone for the Sharks in their quest to book top spot. If they win, they just have to do the necessary and expected against the Leopards the following week; but if they lose, then the trip to Cape Town at the end of the competition could become all important.
We say “could” because WP do not exactly have it easy from here on in. They host Griquas in Cape Town on Friday and then travel to Pretoria the following week for a north/south showdown that will see the Blue Bulls on final footing as another defeat could see them knocked out of the top four.
They should pick up five points this coming week against the Leopards, so the Loftus match could also put the Bulls in with a chance of lifting themselves into the top two as they are currently five points adrift of WP and thus within range of the current second placed team.
However, WP do have a dramatically superior points difference to the other teams, so it is going to require more than just a win for the Bulls over WP if they want to overtake their Cape rivals to secure a home semi. Assuming WP are able to pick up a full house of five at home against Griquas, the Bulls will have to deny WP a bonus point at Loftus while getting five themselves, and then bank on the Sharks preventing Province from getting full points the following week.
At the same time, they will have to do the business against Griquas in Kimberley in their last match, not a given even though the Bulls, like the WP and the Sharks, will have all their Springboks available for that round of competition.
So it’s a long shot for the Bulls, but they might consider themselves to be better placed to strike for a home semi than the Cheetahs, who did their campaign immense harm with their failure to pick up a bonus point in their defeat to the Sharks. It means they are six log points behind Province and with three matches to go that means they are going to have to pull out all the stops.
At this stage it would appear the Sharks are the only team assured of a place in the semi-finals, with it still being mathematically possible for WP to drop out of the top four. However some of the four teams hovering behind WP on the log who still have a chance of catching them – Bulls, Cheetahs, Lions, Griquas – still have to play matches between each other, so the prospect of the Cape team falling out of the top bracket is not really realistic.
For them the objective must now be to secure a home semi and, if it is made at all possible by the Lions on Saturday, maybe top spot on the log. The battle for top spot could well be sewn up though by Saturday night, leaving WP the task of travelling to Pretoria a week later to wrap up second.