Sharks could still top SA pile

    2012-05-16 10:53
    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
    Cape Town – Around the middle of April, the Sharks looked perilously close to also-rans in this year’s Super Rugby competition.

    On April 21, for instance, they slipped to a home defeat against the Chiefs despite opportunities to beat the then table-toppers, and more pessimistic Durban observers could have been forgiven for believing that nuisance value was all they might offer for the remainder of the ordinary-season campaign.

    But then Keegan Daniel’s men had a bye, with the morale-boosting four free points associated with that little refreshment, began to look better in seeing off the Highlanders, and then got into try-scoring “floodgates” mode against the Force last Saturday – suggesting a fuller return to robust health.

    The rosy result of that three-week period means that the unpredictable Sharks have shot into the six-strong playoff zone with five more assignments still ahead of them and a tally of 36 points from 11 games.

    As things stand, they are still a fair way adrift of pace-setting South African compatriots the Bulls (46 points from 10 matches) and Stormers (45 from 10).

    But that “climbing” pattern by the Sharks shows how quickly fortunes can swing in the competition, and there is fair reason to believe that if they stay in winning mode against the fading Cheetahs in Bloemfontein on Saturday (17:05), further catch-up steps can be made.

    Indeed, if you examine the remaining fixtures for John Plumtree’s charges, it is impossible not to contemplate the possibility – even if is only that – that they could sensationally finish top of the conference (and by extension very close to the peak overall) come the completion of Week 21 on Saturday, July 14.

    Here is what’s left for them, keeping also in mind that they still have the luxury of one further bye with its bonanza quartet of points: Cheetahs (away), Stormers (home), Lions (away), Bulls (home), Cheetahs (home).

    No-favours-granted derbies they may all be, but it means a minimum of travel and on current form I imagine most neutrals would be tempted to consider both Cheetahs matches and the Lions one notably winnable for the Durban-based outfit.

    That leaves the all-important Stormers and Bulls obligations: a sobering thought for Sharks supporters is that both first-round matches against these teams were lost (18-13 at Loftus and 15-12 at Newlands, the latter thanks only to Peter Grant’s tricky-angled late penalty).

    But both return fixtures will be at Mr Price Kings Park, and with the Sharks not only building a head of steam but mostly benefiting from “returns” rather than “exits” on the injury front, Daniel and company marching all the way to conference supremacy cannot be summarily written off.

    We have already seen the value to them of Beast Mtawarira returning fresh and pumped-up from his layoff, and if a game-breaker like Ryan Kankowski also rediscovers some personal lustre over the next few weeks, they will only be in better fettle.

    Much may depend on how the Bulls, especially, fare in their two tough, key remaining overseas matches against the Highlanders and Chiefs – should they win them both, which would mean a stunning 100% win record on tour, Pierre Spies’s team ought to retain a level of daylight on the table that is beyond the Sharks’ reel-in potential.

    But a slip in one or both certainly could keep the Sharks well interested in a toppling job, provided that they emerge themselves from Saturday’s clash with that old bogey side in the Free State unscathed.

    They will also be grateful that, despite having lost five times to the Stormers’ once, the last-named team’s rather pitiful struggle to amass bonus points is keeping the Sharks not insurmountably far off them, either – they have an 8-1 advantage over the Capetonians in that particular department.

    Remaining games for SA’s top three sides:

    Bulls: Highlanders (a), Chiefs (a), Stormers (h), Cheetahs (h), Sharks (a), Lions (h).

    Stormers: Waratahs (h), Sharks (a), Bulls (a), Lions (h), Cheetahs (a), Rebels (h).

    Sharks: Cheetahs (a), Stormers (h), Lions (a), bye, Bulls (h), Cheetahs (h).

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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