Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Four tries in their last six matches: it is a damning statistic that does little to suggest the Sharks are genuine Super Rugby title material in 2014, despite their continued but now precarious lead on the overall table.As it happened: Brumbies v Sharks
Something has gone seriously stale for the Durban-based outfit, a situation all too evident for several weeks and prevalent again in their dull-as-ditchwater 16-9 loss to the Brumbies in Canberra on Saturday.
Admittedly conditions were pretty miserable, but there have also been many far sprightlier Super Rugby games down the years in worse weather.
And Sharks impotence on the try-scoring front has become a worrisome phenomenon ... you need to go back as far as March 15 to find the last time they even crossed the whitewash twice, in the 35-20 home victory over the Reds.
Since then, they have lost 23-19 to the Bulls away (one try), beaten the Lions 25-12 away (one try), beaten the Cheetahs 19-8 at home (one try), lost 34-18 to the Highlanders at home (no tries), beaten the Rebels 22-16 away (one try), and now failed to register one again in the latest reverse.
Only one other team in the entire competition, their 11th-placed compatriots the Lions, have notched fewer tries (16) than their 18 from 11 games.
On the brighter side, the Sharks remain the least leaky side at the other end of the pitch, with only 15 try concessions.
But their “tries for” tally pales in comparison with, for instance, the second-placed Chiefs (35 dot-downs) and the third-lying Brumbies (30).
Even the bottom-placed Stormers, with 21, have been more successful on the try-scoring front as they slowly remodel their game to find a more acceptable balance between their highly-regarded defence and attack.
On the subject of the Stormers, is the risk developing that the Sharks are to some extent taking on the same characteristics of the Capetonian side that was so competitive for several seasons recently, but never managed enough verve to go all the way to the overall spoils?
Jake White’s charges are less obsessively concerned with defence, perhaps, but it is also a fact that the Sharks just aren’t scaring enough teams with any meaningful ball-in-hand artistry.
Even as captain Bismarck du Plessis concedes they have to “go back to the drawing board” over the next few days to resolve several issues, the Sharks’ overseas tour hardly gets easier: Saturday’s next foes are a rampantly in-form Crusaders in their Christchurch stronghold.
Not only have the Sharks not won there yet in Super Rugby, but the ‘Saders are on a five-game hot streak of wins, just the latest being a magnificent 57-29 disposal of the Reds in Brisbane on Sunday.
It was the third time in four fixtures that they have notched 40 points or more, and the seven-time past champions are firmly in the running for the playoffs – they lie fourth overall now, five points behind the Sharks but with a game in hand.
So the Sharks have to find new dimensions fast if they are fly in the face of history statistically next weekend.
The latest round was another depressing one for South African teams generally against foreign opponents, with a nought-from-three outcome.
It meant that the slim playoffs hopes of the Bulls were not helped to any decent extent: they have only made up one slot to ninth (having leapfrogged the Blues) following their come-from-behind but ultimately thoroughly deserved triumph over the Stormers at Loftus.
The Force beating the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein and the brave Lions failing at the death to sensationally down the Highlanders in Dunedin meant the winning sides in those contests only strengthened their own finals series claims.
The Bulls lose a bit of momentum next weekend as they have a bye, but will be hoping the Stormers can do them a favour by seeing off the Force at Newlands.
In the feature match of the SA programme, however, the Cheetahs can greatly assist the causes of both the Bulls and Sharks if they shrug off the disappointment of their Force loss to catch the Brumbies in travel-weary mode and knock them over in their first tour match in South Africa (the second and final one is a titanic Loftus clash with the Bulls).
Victor Matfield and company would almost certainly bid farewell to any playoffs prospects if they botch that game in a fortnight.Next weekend’s matches (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):
Friday: Hurricanes v Highlanders, 09:35. Saturday: Crusaders v Sharks, 09:35; Reds v Rebels, 11:40; Stormers v Force, 17:05; Cheetahs v Brumbies, 19:10. Sunday: Waratahs v Lions, 08:05. Byes: Bulls, Chiefs, Blues. *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing