Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - The threat suddenly exists that the Sharks, ordinary season pace-setters for so long, may drop to the massively less desirable third on the Super Rugby table even before they return to action in this year’s competition.
That is because a round of matches takes place on the weekend of June 27 and 28 involving non-South African teams in the competition, as the Springboks will still be playing their final Test of the June “window” against Scotland in Port Elizabeth then.
Had the Sharks beaten the severely depleted Stormers in their Durban derby on Saturday, they would have retained the luxury of a proper cushion at the head of the pack and probably remained there regardless of the results between Australasian sides in that curtailed first round back after the recess.
But they can no longer be said to have destiny in their own hands in terms of their quest to secure rights to an all-important possible home showpiece on August 2, following their lethargic display against the Capetonian underdogs that proved so costly after the hooter.
You got the sense that the Sharks, understandably exhausted following their exertions abroad immediately before the coastal clash, pitched up simply to bank a routine, unadventurous victory ahead of the recess, but their impotence in another notably poor all-South African game instead allowed the adhesive, gritty Stormers to scuttle in through the back door on a potentially very costly night.
It was “Sad Saturday” for the SA challenge as a whole, because the Bulls’ similarly unexpected defeat to a pumped-up Lions crew in Johannesburg has almost certainly ended their playoffs dreams – and the country will thus have only one finals series team for the first time since the advent of the conference system in 2011.
A healthy, ongoing aspect of Super Rugby is that any team, suitably motivated, can knock over any opponent on a sublime day, and the Bulls ultimately paid a heavy price for leaving themselves just too much to do since their return from a winless overseas leg a few weeks ago – they basically needed six
wins from six remaining outings on SA turf at that point, and fell at the fourth hurdle at Ellis Park.
But the Sharks’ title prospects now also face downward revision: it is possible that after the late-June games in which they will be mere onlookers, both the second-placed Waratahs and third-lying Crusaders will have leapfrogged them, and then all after the same amount of matches with two each to go.
The in-form ‘Tahs, with their heavyweight pack and good overall thrust and vibrancy, will go top overall if they beat the Brumbies in an important Sydney derby, and the Crusaders would also sneak one point ahead of the Sharks if they managed a bonus-point triumph over the Hurricanes – remember that New Zealand derbies are often more fluid, risk-taking occasions than South African ones.
Of the present top three, the Sharks are also the only side with the disadvantage of all their remaining obligations being away, so a pessimistic view might be that a third-placed finish is their likeliest scenario from here.
That means an extra, unwelcome game in the knockout phase, and also denial of a home berth at the semi-final stage.
Recent history demonstrates the importance of securing the magical and lucrative home final: the showpiece game has been won every time since 2008 by the side hosting it (ironically the last departure from the trend was 2007, when the Sharks were dramatically pipped at the death by the visiting Bulls in a Durban final).
The Sharks must urgently target as non-negotiable successive away wins against the Cheetahs and Stormers, whilst hoping certain other results go their way in what remains of ordinary season if they are to regroup and still finish on top ...Remaining matches for the current top six sides in Super Rugby:
1. Sharks (45 points from 14 matches): Cheetahs (a), Stormers (a)
2. Waratahs (43 points from 13 matches): Brumbies (h), Highlanders (h), Reds (a)
3. Crusaders (41 points from 13 matches): Hurricanes (a), Blues (h), Highlanders (h)
4. Brumbies (40 points from 14 matches): Waratahs (a), Force (h)
5. Highlanders (38 points from 13 matches): Chiefs (h), Waratahs (a), Crusaders (a)
6. Hurricanes (37 points from 14 matches): Crusaders (h), Chiefs (a)*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing