Playoffs: Sharks within whisker
Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – The Sharks have one foot in the Super Rugby 2014 finals series.
AS IT HAPPENED: Blues v Sharks
By completing a very successful overseas leg – in marked contrast to all of their compatriots this year – with another victory on Friday, Bismarck du Plessis and company all but wrapped up the South African conference and their quest for an all-important finish in the top two is every bit as much on track.
Seeing off the Blues 29-23 at North Harbour, for a third win in four tour games and clean sweep in New Zealand, meant the Sharks earned a handsome overseas haul of 13 points from a possible 20, the kind of tally teams from our shores would usually die for.
Admittedly with all closest rivals yet to play on the weekend roster, the result saw the overall log-leaders extend their cushion to nine points over nearest challengers the Brumbies and Chiefs, although the former had one game in hand and the latter two.
The Sharks currently stand on 44 points, which effectively means they are within one victory (from three remaining games back in South Africa) of being well nigh assured of a playoffs spot even if you take aside the automatic-ticket consideration of winning their conference.
That is because the three-year prior history of the expanded competition shows that an average of around 48 points is enough to make the top-six cut. (Last year even 46 was sufficient to squeeze through, if you take away the now redundant eight points that were awarded for each team’s two byes.)
For the relatively little it is probably now worth, nearest domestic challengers the Bulls could still overhaul them to the conference spoils, but it is a ridiculously unlikely scenario.
One thing is certain after the Auckland result: if the Bulls lose their Friday night (19:10) Loftus fixture against the Brumbies without even so much as a losing bonus point, they could only get to a maximum of 43 points from there – so the conference could even be settled within a matter of hours.
But the three-time former champions from the Highveld ought to be well “up” for what is virtually a knockout encounter for them: as things stand, the Bulls could still get to 48 points and their post-Brumbies obligations of Lions (away), Stormers (away) and Rebels (home) look pretty favourable if they can dispose of the men from Canberra.
Really, though, the Sharks must now be thinking well beyond just securing the conference, as a home semi and possible first home final since the 2007 heart-breaker against the Bulls beckons almost as brightly if they keep their wits about them.
They have a challenging hurdle next weekend, as a derby against coastal arch-rivals the Stormers – a gradually regrouping unit – is perhaps not the ideal script straight off the long haul back from the Australasian leg.
But there is at least an eight-day turnaround to the first of two unusually late-competition meetings with the Capetonians, and it is much more handy for Jake White’s charges at this point that it is a Kings Park date – going to Newlands straight off the tour would have been a more perilous exercise.
The Sharks must aim to make the most of the occasion because it is also their last home game of ordinary season – after the Test window in June they complete their schedule in Bloemfontein and Cape Town respectively.
During the last two weeks, with their respective wins over the Crusaders and Blues, they have upped their intensity commendably following a flattish spell, and just returning to play before the Durban faithful will be a tonic of note next Saturday.
Grimly committed and solidly organised defence and some powerful, blanket turnovers at key times were features of the latest, well-deserved victory, and the Sharks got monumental shifts out of such figures as captain Du Plessis, lanky young Stephan Lewies in the second row and the tackle-relishing midfield pairing of Paul Jordaan and S’bura Sithole.
Their spirit was epitomised – on a night when officialdom sometimes whiffed anew of a “hometown” tendency – by the never-say-die industry of flanker Tera Mtembu, who took a fearful knock from a borderline dangerous Jerome Kaino challenge early on, but returned from a concussion test to shine once more.
The Sharks are in a good space.
Possibly an unstoppable one?
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing