Sharks face another Everest

    2014-07-06 22:01
    Jacques Potgieter (Gallo Images)
    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town – It would probably fall short in “hell factor” terms to the obscene amount of late-campaign travel the Sharks went through in their gutsy but failed quest for the 2012 Super Rugby silverware.

    But the pretty feasible prospect remains, nevertheless, that Jake White’s charges will have to defy the strong impediment of time-zone adjustment and strenuous workload again to claim that elusive title this year.

    That scenario edged a step closer on Sunday after the Waratahs, courtesy of a thumping 44-16 triumph over the Highlanders in Sydney, made sure of top spot on the overall table even with one round of ordinary season left to play.

    The ‘Tahs, on a hot streak of six wins in succession and looking close to unstoppable right now, have the luxury of deciding which key players they might wish to give limited game-time to or rest completely for their academic derby against the Reds in Brisbane next Saturday.

    They will then have a guaranteed bye into a home semi-final a fortnight ahead, and are obviously favourites at this point to also stage a home showpiece on August 2 and hoist the trophy for the first time after being runners-up in 2008 and 2005.

    Their cushion over the second-placed Crusaders and Sharks in third – though those teams are level on 46 points – is an insurmountable seven points.

    So apart from the final round determining exactly which six sides will contest the playoffs phase collectively, it will also nail down which of the ‘Saders or Sharks secures that critical second home semi berth.

    Unfortunately for fans of the Durban-based side and broad-minded South African enthusiasts as a whole, the dice is loaded against the Sharks doing it, a situation certainly not helped by their second derby stumble on the trot in Bloemfontein on Saturday.

    The Crusaders, who have a slightly superior “for and against” status although an identical tally of wins (10), have an easier closing fixture on paper as they entertain the Highlanders in Christchurch, whereas the Sharks have another monumental all-SA scrap against the in-form Stormers at Newlands.

    At least the Sharks will know exactly what they have to do in Cape Town, given that theirs is the last game of the entire round at 19:10 on Saturday.

    They will be fully aware already that the Stormers will aim to continue on their late-season – albeit only really for pride – charge, not least because some of their ranks will still carry clear memories of the semi-final heartbreak against the same foes at Newlands in 2012 after the Cape side had done the hard yards of topping the overall standings after ordinary season.

    Underdogs after travelling back from a first-round playoffs victory over the Reds in Brisbane, the Sharks put aside their long-haul fatigue to register a famous, deserved 26-19 win – but their passport-wielding ping-pong then resumed when they had to return to Australasia immediately for the final against the Chiefs in Hamilton and they were almost inevitably brushed aside 37-6 as the burden just got too much.

    It would be a slightly less gruelling travel situation this time, if the Sharks do end third, but still a truly taxing route if they do believe the title remains within their grasp – especially with that horribly undesirable extra away knockout game, even before the semi.

    Perhaps their best hope (though a Highlanders win in Christchurch would be a monster bonus!) is that the ‘Saders win the NZ derby without a bonus point, and they then somehow muster the energy and vibrancy to beat the Stormers with four tries and sneak into second by a solitary but precious log point.

    Again that seems a long shot: not only have the Sharks gone rather flat again, with so many of their blue-chip players grossly overplayed at Super Rugby and Springbok level, but the Stormers (four wins in a row) have done a clinical defensive job, as much as anything else, en route to that prosperous haul.

    Both the Cheetahs (0-33) and the Bulls (0-16) have left Newlands without mustering a single point on the scoreboard.

    Whether the Sharks do end second or third, this is going to be the worst season in many years (including the former Super 14 days) in terms of the collective SA challenge.

    It will be the first time since the advent of the expanded, conference format in 2011 that the country only sports one of the six playoffs teams, and on the latest table South African teams occupy four of the last six places.

    Although the Sharks may yet conquer their Everest against mounting odds, it is mightily tempting to speculate that any South African involvement in scooping the big prize will be curtailed to an individual in the shape of popular, ton-of-bricks Waratahs utility forward Jacques Potgieter from Port Elizabeth.

    The best ally the Sharks can take comfort from at present is that momentum shifts and form swings can take place very suddenly in Super Rugby, and that nothing is impossible from one week to another ...

    Last round of ordinary-season matches (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):

    Friday: Blues v Chiefs, 09:35; Brumbies v Force, 11:40; Bulls v Rebels, 19:10. Saturday: Crusaders v Highlanders, 09:35; Reds v Waratahs, 11:40; Lions v Cheetahs, 17:05; Stormers v Sharks, 19:10. Bye: Hurricanes.

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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