Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - Likely to field a team that will remain unavoidably vulnerable on paper, the Sharks teeter on the brink of becoming early also-rans in Super Rugby on Saturday.
Derby defeat at Kings Park (17:05 kick-off) to a Bulls side with stronger playoffs aspirations than theirs would consign them to six losses from 10 matches and leave them only the most forlorn of remaining hopes of cracking the six-team cut after ordinary season.
Bearing in mind that the Force (nine wins) and Hurricanes (eight) both failed to qualify last season, the embattled Durban outfit might under such circumstances face the ceaselessly pressured prospect of having to win all six remaining fixtures to be sure of making the grade even in one of the greatly less favourable finals series berths with the extra demands they impose.
And realistically, Sharks fans, can you see that unblemished sequence suddenly happening, even in a period when some of their more proven personnel start to mercifully filter back from suspension or injury?
That scenario looks even nearer to impossible when you consider that the run-in includes the entire four-game overseas leg featuring, in order, the Highlanders, Hurricanes, Waratahs and Reds.
On current form, even two wins abroad from that task list looks a pretty optimistic call - the Sharks’ best showing in Australasia since the advent of the conference system in 2011 is three victories last year, when they were in the midst of a much more pronounced winning culture.
It was just one from four in 2013, the only year in conference-era Super Rugby thus far in which they have failed to reach the playoffs.
So the stakes are enormously high for them on Saturday, as they attempt to avenge a first-round 43-35 loss to the same foes at Loftus in late February.
Pardon the enduring bleakness of my Sharks theme here, but I find it pretty hard to see them doing it - even with home advantage - against a Bulls outfit which, by stark contrast, should benefit from the return this week of key figures like Adriaan Strauss in the pack and Handre Pollard at flyhalf.
Truth be told, the Sharks are presently having to put out XVs too laden with mid-table-standard, long-in-the-tooth journeymen ... unsurprisingly giving them no more than the very mid-table status they occupy.
There were positive noises both in the media and from their own management after the 23-21 loss to the Lions last weekend, which were probably inevitable considering the improvement, if you like, from that dire 42-point home hammering from the Crusaders.
Director of rugby Gary Gold spoke of “huge character” and “sticking it out for the full duration”, while also suggesting certain future prospects had “put their hands up”.
There couldn’t be too much disputing of his words on the team spirit front; it was indeed a lot better (though some wags might counter: could it possibly have got lower?).
Less credible, perhaps, were his views on more callow players - without disclosing any specific names - coming to the fore for the cause in Johannesburg.
For if you took aside rookie, normally third-choice hooker Franco Marais, 22, and the 21-year-old brawny midfielder Andre Esterhuizen from the line-up that tackled the Lions, the Sharks team stayed rather stubbornly “geriatric” in several slots.
Let’s face it, the lock pairing of Mouritz Botha and Marco Wentzel - combined age 68 - are admirable workhorses but each past their prime so the second row lacks any special mobility or dynamism.
In fairness, if you paired Wentzel, say, with Stephan Lewies or Botha with Pieter-Steph du Toit, there would be infinitely better balance to the alliance, but the Sharks are still without both bright young Springboks and the Botha-Wentzel duo must be a bit stiff and sore anyway after several weeks of necessarily uninterrupted service.
Utility back three man Odwa Ndungane is another yeoman, reliable Sharks servant but at 34 he, too, seldom puts the fear of god into opposition defences any more whilst Waylon Murray’s best year for the franchise was probably as far back as 2007, when the subsequently injury-bedevilled No 13 formed a lethal partnership with one Brad Barritt, long out of the Durban picture and having amassed almost two dozen England caps.
Minus the relatively youthful spark and flair for the unexpected provided by critical absentees like Pat Lambie and Paul Jordaan in the backline and a rare athletic phenomenon like Du Toit in the engine room, the Sharks keep fielding teams that, while looking solid and seasoned enough on paper, sorely lack any sense of mystery or invention.
To borrow from cricketing parlance, the Sharks of recent weeks have collectively been like a batsman capable of stoically “holding up an end” ... but there is no Barry Richards or Brian Lara to wow at the other.
They struggle to get protracted front-foot dominance, a situation all too evident when they embarrassingly earned no more than a third or so of possession or territory in the fortuitous home triumph over the humdrum Western Force, and they laboured similarly for traction against the Lions last weekend when visits to the home quarter were few and far between.
A big problem for the Sharks, and not for the first time, is that their systems beneath Super Rugby level are either not properly trusted or simply not considered good enough to fortify the team in times of personnel crisis, like the one at present which has given new off-field string-puller Gold, in fairness, no proper chance to show what he really may be worth.
Whereas the Vodacom Cup teams at Loftus, Newlands and other reasonably major centres are already flying high in 2015, the Sharks XV has made another iffy start, with only one win from three matches and fairly heavy losses already to both WP and Free State.
Last season the Sharks were also no great shakes in this lower-tier, development-geared competition, bowing out at the quarter-final stage as all of the Blue Bulls, Golden Lions, Pumas and Griquas, the eventual champions, went further.
Perhaps the Sharks, with warts ‘n all available troops, will show good “gees” again this weekend. Again, I just suspect it may not be enough.
And if that is the case, it’s probably goodnight nurse in Super Rugby 2015, even before so much of the first-choice cavalry gallops, too late, back into the camp ...
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