Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – If the Sharks were a car awaiting a verdict from a panel beater after a crash, the report coming back might read: “badly damaged”.
That is certainly the status right now of their quest to win the elusive Super Rugby title for the first time in 2014.
It has taken a painful knock, that’s for sure.
Their much-needed cushion at the top of the overall table has all but evaporated following the shock, heavy reverse to a pumped-up and delightfully resourceful Highlanders outfit at Kings Park on Friday.
It was unexpected – the 0-4 outcome in the try column a particularly damning statement against the supposed title hunters – and the last result they needed given that the always formidable four-match obligation abroad is about to begin, against the Rebels in Melbourne next weekend.
Before this horrible turn-up for the books, the suggestion by several experts was that two wins in Australasia might be a realistic target for the Sharks, especially bearing in mind that South African teams had not yet registered a miserly one between them at the time of writing.
Now, if the Sharks are to still harbour realistic aspirations of hosting the final, might they have to revise that possible target to a much more demanding three?
Just as pertinently, the second tour fixture against the Brumbies in Canberra now looks a particularly red-letter occasion, as it might play a massive role in determining which of the sides – though there are several others still fancying it too – could stage the showpiece this year.
Following their zero-log-points blowout to the Highlanders, the Sharks hold a fragile one-point lead over the Brumbies, who experienced an altogether more “Fab Friday” by thrashing defending champions the Chiefs.
But a handful of teams, very mindful of how tough it is for South African sides to prosper in their extended visit to Antipodean climes, will be licking their lips about the possibility that the Sharks go into some of mini-freefall overseas.
Sadly that is not out of the question, considering the glaring clumsiness and staleness of successive matches against the Cheetahs (though the Sharks at least won that snore-fest) and more recently the enterprising pillagers from Dunedin.
It does need to be acknowledged that Jake White’s charges were disrupted on match-day by the withdrawals of two gnarly forwards in captain Bismarck du Plessis and Jean Deysel: just the sort of characters who might have provided the sustained, hallmark physicality that instead went rather AWOL against the Highlanders.
In their absence, however, it was going to be critical that remaining senior troopers and established Springbok favourites like JP Pietersen, Willem Alberts and Frans Steyn lift their personal games by way of compensation.
It didn’t happen ... I felt, frankly, that all of that decorated trio were uncharacteristically dreadful, and the virus simply spread to the more callow players on show for the Sharks on a night that just got more and more ragged and chaotic for them.
Pietersen shuffled around mostly innocuously, and when the powerful flier got into promising positions for an assault on the try-line, his handling (a widespread affliction in the SA conference of late) let him down at a couple of crucial times.
Steyn was really no better -- although in the hefty utility player’s defence you might argue that he was due an off-colour showing after several compelling ones in a row and the suggestion that he is carrying some niggles.
It defies logic that with three or four minutes remaining, and the Sharks 16 points adrift, he was as guilty as anyone of aimlessly, gormlessly hoofing the ball back to the frisky Highlanders back three when the situation absolutely cried out for ball retention and at least some attempt at daring creativity.
Alberts, for his part, may have been a little unsettled by his sudden return to blindside flank in a hastily reshuffled Sharks pack – he has had a few games at No 4 lock – but the former is his preferred position by a distance, so that was no special excuse for an ineffectual, fitful display by the revered Bone Collector who instead got “skinned” on a few occasions by less meaty souls than himself.
It is difficult to believe that White will not have read the riot act to a good extent ... perhaps in the immediate post-game dressing room, or maybe he will wait until the squad have touched down on Australian soil after the automatic punishment, anyway, of their arduous flight across the Indian Ocean.
As usual, forthright SuperSport critic and former Bok coach Nick Mallett did not mince his own words, saying that the Sharks had fallen victim to the “general malaise of South African rugby” of not having a clue what to do when behind on the scoreboard and needing to treasure possession rather than squander it.
“(The Sharks) were very, very lethargic and riddled with errors – but we must try to be positive, take the view that we put this behind us, and hope it is the kick in the backside they need for their overseas tour.”
Whether they can muster desperately-needed energy and sparkle in time for their first assignment in a different time zone remains to be seen ... *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing