Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – At the risk of putting the cart before the horse,
the Sharks are just three games away from what could be a really pivotal Super
Rugby ordinary-season encounter with the Brumbies in Canberra on May 10.
These teams currently occupy the top two positions on the
overall table – the Durban-based outfit have a six-point lead – and it will be
vital that the Sharks recapture their A-game on that occasion.
In other words, while they dare not take their eye off the
ball in prior encounters against the Highlanders (home) and Rebels (away) that
they should be favourites to win, Jake White’s charges will need to play
infinitely better at Canberra Stadium than they did in the tedious 19-8 Durban
victory over the Cheetahs in the latest round.
That Brumbies date already shapes up as a possible
“eight-point swing” type of fixture, given that a precious Sharks win could
increase the daylight between the two teams in an overall context, whilst a
hometown triumph would have a damaging, opposite effect from a Sharks point of
view with two of their fixtures abroad yet to complete and then three tough
derbies back home as well.
It is the sort of contest that could have a major say in
influencing rights to all-important home semi-finals and possibly even the
later showpiece itself.
Let’s not forget that major extra spice is provided on May
10 by White’s return to the home ground of the side he coached to last season’s
final, before fleeing the Australian Capital Territory landscape rather
abruptly for his new post in KwaZulu-Natal.
On paper, the Sharks’ situation at present looks satisfyingly
secure, but it is skewed more than a bit by the fact that the pace-setters have
had a notably favourable “first half” in fixture terms, with an awful lot of
activity at their Kings Park stronghold.
What it means is that the run-in phase is altogether more
formidable for them, including their four-game overseas roster.
With eight games left for each of three conference leaders (slightly
faltering champions the Chiefs still hold sway in New Zealand), it is
unsurprisingly the Sharks who have more matches than the other two away from
home – five as opposed to four each.
Some consolation is that the Brumbies still have to
negotiate their two-match South African safari (Cheetahs and Bulls) and, ahead
of the Canberra crunch against the very Sharks, will have come off demanding obligations
against the Chiefs and Crusaders respectively.
Yes, New Zealand’s title retention hopefuls the Chiefs
haven’t been at their vintage best in recent weeks, but of the three
conference-leaders their eight-game run-in looks the least daunting from a
travel point of view.
Once they have tackled the Brumbies in Canberra on Friday
(09:40 SA time), their remaining seven matches will all be on NZ soil, which
involves a minimum of time spent in the air.
If you wanted to play Grim Reaper – enough South African
fans already aren’t too enchanted by the quality of fare in our conference –
you could argue that it is still extremely feasible that the Sharks get bumped
right out of the top two at the end of ordinary season, and thus have to go a
longer, more travel-heavy route in the playoffs if they wish to go all the way
to the elusive title this year.
An extra complication is that the Sharks can’t simply look
at the other conference leaders over their shoulder: they must chew on the
possibility that they could also yet be hauled in by several other ambitious Australasian
sides before the finals series is reached.
Of course it will take a near-miracle for the runaway Sharks
not to win the ho-hum SA conference from here, but everyone knows that ending
third overall is massively disadvantageous at a time when fatigue and niggles
are setting in to an increasing extent and long-haul flights are especially
While beginning to think more and more about that looming red-letter
day against the Brumbies, Bismarck du Plessis and company must also be very
wary of slipping on a banana peel in either of the two games ahead of it.
Even if their best mojo continues to stay elusive for the
time being, they simply must do enough to grind out wins in the pair ...
Remaining matches for each of the three conference leaders (also top current trio overall):
SA: Sharks (31 points): Highlanders (h), Rebels (a), Brumbies (a), Crusaders (a), Blues (a), Stormers (h), Cheetahs (a), Stormers (h)
Aus: Brumbies (25 points): Chiefs (h), Crusaders (a), Sharks (h), Cheetahs (a), Bulls (a), Rebels (h), Waratahs (a), Force (h)
NZ: Chiefs (25 points): Brumbies (a), Lions (h), Blues (h), Hurricanes (a), Waratahs (h), Highlanders (a), Hurricanes (h), Blues (a)
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