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
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
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
Remaining games for
SA’s top three sides:
Highlanders (a), Chiefs (a), Stormers (h), Cheetahs (h), Sharks (a), Lions (h).
Waratahs (h), Sharks (a), Bulls (a), Lions (h), Cheetahs (a), Rebels (h).
(a), Stormers (h), Lions (a), bye, Bulls (h), Cheetahs (h).
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