Sharks clinging to contention

    2012-04-23 07:31

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town – The Sharks have it all to do if they are at least to repeat last season’s Super Rugby effort of sneaking into the six-team playoff zone at the end of the campaign.

    That is perhaps the best they can hope for at this stage, because it will take a phenomenal effort on their part if they are to overhaul either of the Stormers or Bulls, sharing top spot in the South African conference at the midway mark of their respective programmes and both 10 points clear of the up-and-down Durban side.

    A little ominously for the Sharks, their slipping through the gate into the playoffs last year – courtesy of a rousing victory at Loftus on the last day of ordinary season to pip the very Bulls to a berth – came with a tally of 10 wins from their 16 conference matches.

    Keegan Daniel’s team have played nine matches thus far, and Saturday’s narrow reverse to the Chiefs in a tense, bruising and error-riddled encounter at humid Mr Price Kings Park left them with a dangerous total of only four victories.

    So if a minimum of 10 triumphs will be the requirement to qualify for the playoffs once more, the Sharks will have to win six of their remaining seven fixtures: a tall order for a side more dogged than most by an infuriatingly inconsistent characteristic in 2012.

    But qualification has not quite reached “miracle” status in likelihood for them yet, as a few factors do remain in their favour: they don’t even completely preclude the possibility that the Sharks yet top the SA pile.

    One is that they are currently the team with more bonus points (seven) than any of the 15 in the competition – that is the same tally they managed in that column after their completed conference obligations in 2011, so if they keep picking these up at a healthy rate it could mean that an arguably more realistic five victories from here might even be enough for them to make the cut this year.

    Also ahead still for the Sharks are both of their bye rounds – the first a very welcome one this weekend – meaning that they are still to bank a guaranteed eight points without lifting a finger.

    All other teams have already enjoyed one of their two “freebie” weekends.

    Their remaining programme also involves a remarkable minimum of travel – five games are in the Shark Tank, whilst trips to Bloemfontein (Cheetahs, May 19) and Johannesburg (Lions, June 2) hardly offer up any threat of jetlag!

    The Sharks may have already lost to both South African pace-setters, but those games were at Loftus and Newlands respectively, so they still have home revenge opportunities in each instance.

    Even if they have rather drifted off the playoffs radar in the interim, derby pride runs eternally deep and those two assignments – Stormers on May 26 and Bulls on July 6 – could yet have a key bearing on which of those two compatriot sides eventually tops the conference.

    The Capetonians retain inside lane, you would think.

    Their four-match overseas tour is almost done and dusted, save for what always looked like the least demanding match against the Force, rocked by management upheaval for good measure, in Perth on Saturday.

    No match abroad can ever be taken for granted, but the Stormers will probably have to play notably badly or be seriously jaded to trip up in that one – so smart money suggests they will come home smiling, with three wins from the quartet of challenges.

    It is never easy being among the last South African sides to tour, after an already pretty gruelling campaign on home soil and when the New Zealand weather, especially, is in danger of deteriorating, but that is the challenge that faces the Bulls this year.

     It could make it difficult for them to stay at least neck-and-neck with the Stormers during that period: their Australasian agenda, in order, is Rebels, Waratahs, Highlanders and finally the overall log-leading (at present, anyway) Chiefs.

    The Bulls also have a bit of soul-searching to do during this inactive week for them, after a decidedly patchy display in beating the Brumbies at Loftus, where they suffered the indignity of somehow being outscored in the try department 5-2.

    Admittedly the Australian side were a little flattered by the closeness of the 36-34 result, but their seemingly finishing the stronger for stamina on the Highveld of all places was a matter for some concern among Bulls enthusiasts.

    It may simply have been a case of the Bulls taking their eye off the ball a bit for “preservation” purposes, as they introduced lots of substitutes towards the end and lost much shape in the process.

    This week’s matches (home teams first, all times SA):

    Friday: Blues v Reds, 09:35; Lions v Brumbies, 19:10. Saturday: Chiefs v Hurricanes, 09:35; Force v Stormers, 11:40; Cheetahs v Highlanders, 17:05. Sunday: Waratahs v Crusaders, 07:10. Byes: Bulls, Sharks, Rebels.

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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