Sharks' big chance to go top
Gavin Rich - SuperSport
Johannesburg - The Stormers don't have any centres and the Bulls have no form to speak of when they're not playing at home and with altitude on their side, so it looks like the Sharks are poised to take the lead in the battle for supremacy in the South African conference of Vodacom Super Rugby.
Does that sound like an outlandish statement? Well it could be, but it also might not be. Certainly at least one of those assertions are debatable - the Stormers don't have their first choice centres available for their all-important match against the Blues in Auckland on Friday, but then not many other franchises would complain about having Juan de Jongh and Johann Sadie in their midfield.
It is indeed the case that the Bulls don't boast any form to speak of away from Loftus, but then that may be just because they haven't played away or at the coast since they finally started rediscovering some confidence against the Chiefs. Saturday evening will provide us with the answer as they clash with the Sharks at Mr Price Kings Park, and it is hard to imagine a bigger litmus test for the Bulls' supposed resurgence.
It should go without saying that the challenge they face this weekend is significantly bigger than that which they faced against both the Chiefs and the Melbourne Rebels. In the latter the Australian newcomers to the tournament were simply woeful in the first half and showed no stomach for the defensive effort that was required against the Bulls.
In the second though they did show a little bit of bottle and in that 40 minute period there was nothing to separate the two sides. Yes, Frans Ludeke had taken some of his star players off and they had already started without Victor Matfield. But still, in the end it wasn't the 80 minute avalanche that had been threatened earlier in the game and which might have had the Sharks quaking in their boots.
Mind you, the Sharks weren't too flush for the first 40 minutes of the last game they played against the Brumbies, and were desperate in the 80 minutes that preceded that against the Stormers. Which really is the point of all of this - it's becoming harder by the week to make any kind of forecast of what to expect in a Super Rugby weekend with any reasonable degree of certainty.
Predicting that the Stormers will lose to the Blues and the Sharks will beat the Bulls to go top by Saturday night is a much more sane line than anything that might have been forwarded on behalf of the Lions against the Brumbies the previous weekend - and look what happened there.
What is clear-cut is that the Crusaders should be hoping for a Stormers win this time as a Blues victory will heap extra pressure on them as they head into their clash with the Chiefs in Nelson on Saturday. And don't bet too much against the Chiefs inflicting another defeat on a Crusaders team that is still weakened by injury and which had to fly back from South Africa this week.
The table topping Reds are enjoying a bye this week but "enjoying" is the operative word as it means they are assured of the four points that regardless of what happens in Auckland will keep them on top of the overall log (on points difference if the Blues pick up a full house against the Stormers).
The Sharks are hoping the Lions can do everyone a favour by knocking back the Waratahs challenge in Sydney - and stranger things than that have happened in this intriguing and unpredictable 2011 Super Rugby season. It must be stressful for the participants and the coaches, but those who are following it will be fastening their seatbelts for another highly absorbing weekend of action.