Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – After a match as brutal and just as often cynical as that one, you’d feel you warrant a week off to banish the bruises.
And that is exactly what the Super Rugby log-leading Sharks conveniently now get, after making another major statement about their maiden title intent by seeing off the rugged Waratahs 32-10 at Kings Park on Saturday.
The Sydney-based outfit, with their heavyweight pack and some backline players willing by reputation to mix it as well, clearly were hell-bent ahead of the match on throwing the kitchen sink; the Sharks were entirely ready for that so what we got was irresistible force versus immovable object for most of the 80 minutes.
Mutual big hits flew in dime-a-dozen, so much so that at times the crowd broke into applause more to hail the bloody-minded physical commitment on display than for any special moments of verve or artistry.
Under such circumstances tempers were always going to fray and citings for foul play now await influential Sharks inside centre Frans Steyn and Waratahs wing Rob Horne – they may find themselves getting one-game sit-outs.
The Aussies don’t have the luxury of a break in the coming week, as they move on to play the embattled Stormers at Newlands; the hosts can almost certainly kiss goodbye to an already unlikely push for the playoffs if they lose a sixth 2014 fixture in seven so they should be up for it, even with their depleted personnel.
But the Sharks are in an altogether better space than their coastal compatriots, even if the in-form Steyn possibly finds himself ineligible for their next game against the Lions in Johannesburg in a fortnight.
This victory, with a greatly re-jigged side after their first loss of the campaign to the Bulls last weekend, was seldom in much doubt and it will barely bother mastermind Jake White that a bonus point didn’t accompany it – it was the type of merciless clash where you grab the four points and move on to next challenges.
As much as their gnarly senior personnel came to the party, youngsters like Stephan Lewies and Fred Zeilinga – an authoritative revelation as Pat Lambie’s stand-in at flyhalf – stuck their hands up as well.
The Sharks comfortingly cannot be hauled in during their bye week, as they are six points clear of nearest challengers the Brumbies and Chiefs, even if the latter have played one game fewer than them.
Meanwhile the Bulls frustratingly slipped just out of the playoffs terrain into seventh (though merely on points differential from the Blues) after blowing a glorious opportunity to beat the defending champions at Loftus.
They’d done so many of the hard yards by being more than two converted tries ahead at one stage in the last quarter and pushing hard for the four-try bonus point that would have completely snuffed out the Chiefs’ candle.
But a combination of the New Zealanders’ unflagging, counter-attacking chutzpah and disappointing tackling lapses by the Bulls saw the visitors come back to snatch a dramatic half-share of the 68 points hoisted in Pretoria – Victor Matfield was dead right in predicting a high-scoring affair!
They also got a bonus point themselves, for 3-2 log-point superiority, and it would have felt like a win to the Mooloo Men.
Still, there was enough in patches to remind that the Bulls should stay right in the picture for the finals series: at times the home pack were a formidable blanket of raw power and rumbling energy.
They go off on tour now, desperately hoping that they will not come up with the sort of no-wins returns experienced abroad by both the Stormers and Cheetahs.
Their four-match itinerary certainly isn’t the worst on paper: Hurricanes, Highlanders, Waratahs and Force in that order.
I fancy that a minimum haul of two victories is well within the capability of Frans Ludeke’s charges if they are suitably focused and play to potential while plugging some defensive frailties.
Surprise packages the Lions, riding fourth despite not playing in the latest round, entertain the just as unexpectedly slow-cruising Crusaders at Ellis Park on Saturday, whilst the Cheetahs will be expected to do title-chasing compatriots a big favour by knocking over the Chiefs in their welcome return to their Bloemfontein stronghold.Next round of matches (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):
Friday: Highlanders v Rebels, 08:35; Brumbies v Blues, 10:40. Saturday: Hurricanes v Bulls, 08:35; Reds v Force, 10:40; Cheetahs v Chiefs, 15:00; Lions v Crusaders, 17:05; Stormers v Waratahs, 19:10. Bye: Sharks.*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing