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    Sharks could fall off cliff

    2015-03-11 12:01

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town – JP Pietersen is right: the Super Rugby season has a long way to go, and there have been some oddball results in the early rounds ... enough to suggest that certain labouring big guns can still find a way back.

    The experienced Springbok utility back was clearly trying to put the inevitable positive spin this week on the Sharks’ current predicament -- he was hardly going to say: “You know, we’re just not up to it; we’ve already given up the ghost.”

    But he will also know all too well that such bullish talk will take on a particularly hollow tone if the Durban-based outfit, seemingly so competitive on paper, tumble to a horrendous one-from-five record if they lose again this weekend when the Cheetahs stand in their way in Bloemfontein (Saturday, 17:05).

    Past experience tells all vigilant Super Rugby monitors that a 20 percent win record after five rounds mostly tends not to be a ticket, further down the drag, to playoffs status – and keep in mind the widely-touted pre-season belief that the Sharks would be fierce contenders both for the SA conference mantle and as possible home semi-finalists.

    A bit of minor mathematics from last season, for instance, reveals much about the grim uphill battle that would face Bismarck du Plessis and company if they were to go down at Free State Stadium.

    Given that one of the sides finishing on eight wins from ordinary season in 2014, the currently high-flying Hurricanes, didn’t find that tally quite enough to make the six-team finals series cut, let’s set the safety bar at nine for qualification: it would leave the Sharks requiring a major turnaround that would involve eight wins from 11 remaining ordinary-roster fixtures to sneak even a low-rank playoffs ticket.

    Among those 11 matches, of course, would be their still-awaited four-game overseas tour obligation, with all the associated hazards for South African teams lugging their way through Australasia.

    It is true that the Sharks performed admirably abroad under Jake White’s rather short-lived tutelage last season, earning a dream – by SA standards – three victories, against the Rebels, Crusaders (that 14-man show of valour) and Blues, and losing only to the Brumbies.

    But they were also in the midst of a rather stronger winning habit than they presently are in 2015, with self-confidence levels likely to have been more buoyant than will be the case at this point.

    When the Sharks finally embark on their foreign challenge this time -- still six games up the road which may be no bad thing under present circumstances – the programme looks a potentially tougher one: Highlanders, Hurricanes, defending champions the Waratahs, and the Reds in that order.

    “Bankers” from that list in victory terms look reasonably hard to find, even if the Reds have been no great shakes thus far and are bottom of the Aussie conference.

    In short, then, there is seriously little room for further slip-ups by the Sharks, either in the several weeks before or during the venture to New Zealand and Australia.

    The longer their early-season slumber goes on, the massively less likely their playoffs candidacy will be at the business end.

    A comparison between where the conference-winning Sharks were last season to now after four matches makes alarming reading for their fans: they had bagged 18 points out of a possible 20 then, with wins over the Bulls (31-16), Hurricanes (27-9), Lions (37-23) and Reds (35-20) – admittedly all at Kings Park – whereas this time they sport only six points from 20, a gaping deficit of 12 on last season.

    So it seems a non-negotiable that they restore some semblance of stability and title hope by beating the Cheetahs, who are punching gamely above their weight already, on Saturday.

    The Sharks need to confirm they have rightful claims to status as heavyweights. And quickly ...

    All remaining Sharks fixtures in ordinary season: Cheetahs (a), Chiefs (h), Force (h), Crusaders (h), Lions (a), Bulls (h), Highlanders (a), Hurricanes (a), Waratahs (a), Reds (a), Rebels (h), Stormers (h).

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

    Read More On:  sharks super 15 jp pietersen rugby

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