Cape Town – The mini-slump being experienced by the defending champions, the Sharks, is a key feature of the Currie Cup at its midway point in league play.
Two losses on the trot -- after a three-match winning start that hadn’t produced much champagne rugby and was already delivering certain warning signs – have left the Durban-based side with an increasingly precarious hold on a “semi-final” slot.
They lie fourth on the overall table and with an awful lot of work to do in the second half of their ordinary-season roster if they are to recover enough ground to challenge for rights to a possible home final – perhaps simply making sure they actually get into the last four must be a shorter-term, lesser objective now.
As things stand, unbeaten leaders Western Province, the 2013 runners-up, hold a sizeable lead over any other Test union powers in the top four – eight clear of the third-placed Lions, and as many as nine over the Sharks.
The surprise packages at this stage are the Pumas, who earned a maiden away victory of the season against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein to confirm that they can also be tough nuts to crack outside their Fortress Mbombela habitat; they’ve five points adrift of WP, in second.
Coach Jimmy Stonehouse insists their first objective is still simply not to be caught up in any promotion/relegation issues at the end of the campaign, and it will require a major slump by them and serious charge by the basement EP Kings (a miserly one point from a possible 25) or Griquas if the Pumas are to get caught up that particular battle.
What will be worrying for Sharks diehards after their shock home reverse to previously winless Griquas, meanwhile, is that on the immediate horizon for them are successive away games: Cheetahs next weekend and then the resurgent Blue Bulls at Loftus.
That is not an ideal short-term roster for Brad MacLeod-Henderson’s charges, given the chronic lack of confidence, X-factor or dynamism in their play – they have really had three bad games on the trot because their last win was a laboured 19-16 home one over the limited Cheetahs with just one try to their credit.
In the SuperSport studio, pundit and former Sharks and Springbok utility forward AJ Venter said what worried him particularly was that the team appeared to be shedding their aura for great forward physicality and intensity.
He might have added that their backline play isn’t exactly inspirational at present, either.
Some consolation is that the Sharks won last year’s Currie Cup at Newlands, so an unfavourable draw in the knockout stage isn’t necessarily going to unnerve them too much – but they’ll have to rediscover some collective mojo first if title retention in 2015 is to be a realistic goal.
The WP steam-train continues to pick up speed: they were just too fleet-footed and classy for the Kings in the first game of the weekend on Friday night and romped home by 35 points while still leaving the feeling they didn’t hit power-fifth gear.
Firmly rooted to the bottom of the log, the Kings are hardly showing the necessary signals that they are properly braced for a return to Super Rugby status in the relatively short term – clearly over the next year or two a fresh recruitment drive of quality personnel from elsewhere is going to be required if the necessary financing can be stumped up for it.
The Eastern Cape region itself is not yet up to producing a big enough cupboard of home-grown talent to justify inclusion in the unforgiving SANZAR competition, although we know public support is less of a problem if some semblance of a winning culture can be restored.
Team of the weekend, almost certainly, was the Bulls: they survived a late sting in the Lions’ tail in the cross-Jukskei derby in Pretoria to put away Johan Ackermann’s high-riders 36-26 and thoroughly warranted the victory.
The result confirmed that the signs of improvement in the home loss to WP a week earlier weren’t simply a temporary feature.
They were refreshingly “up” for the encounter, with forwards like Grant Hattingh and a snorting Dean Greyling eager to make yardage all the time and relieved captain Deon Stegmann admitting afterwards: “The guys really played for each other ... showed their hearts to each other.”
Flyhalf Jacques-Louis Potgieter, the official man of the match, continued that theme in his own post-game interview: “We had a lot of desperation in the team; the guys went deep today.”
The Bulls next tackle the ailing Kings in Port Elizabeth, and will feel another win is well within current grasp to probably elevate them from their present, under-achieving sixth out of the eight sides.
Headline game of the next round is undoubtedly the Lions’ opportunity to turn around their recent inconsistent form and earn a revenge victory over WP at Ellis Park, having been beaten 27-14 at Newlands in late August.
Remember that Province have injury concerns affecting two members now of their lethal back three, Cheslin Kolbe and Seabelo Senatla, so that could remove a fair bit of their sting.
But if they win in the Big Smoke to go six out of six, the words “one-horse race” will be closer to fitting use ...
Next weekend’s programme (home teams first):
Friday: EP Kings v Blue Bulls, 19:10. Saturday: Griquas v Pumas, TBA; Free State Cheetahs v Sharks, 15:00; Golden Lions v Western Province, 17:05.
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