Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - Anyone perusing the current Super Rugby overall table
for the first time this season would understandably be tempted to suggest the Sharks have it easy against the Highlanders in Dunedin on Saturday (09:35 SA time).
Last year’s losing finalists against a home team with a hapless, nought-from-eight record in 2013 and just two “real” log points to show among their 10 (the remaining eight are their two sets of bye points) ... it should be a no-brainer.
The reality is a little different.
Yes, the Highlanders have under-delivered spectacularly this season in the results column, but the fact remains that they are a long way from the weakest squad ever assembled in this competition.
They also haven’t simply played rollover to all comers - really heavy defeats are entirely absent among their eight reverses, the worst home margin of defeat being by 17 points to the Cheetahs and, much more recently, the biggest away gap being 16 against compatriots the Crusaders.
Certain outcomes have hinted, too, at the quality many insist they still have in their midst, like the desperately narrow 34-33 home loss to the impressive Reds, and a similarly nail-biting 19-23 score-line against the Hurricanes.
The Highlanders may be a team in the throes of an obvious confidence crisis, but they haven’t actually shattered into a million pieces ... not yet, anyway.
Nor would you expect that to become the case when you run through a squad including such weighty names as Brad Thorn, Tony Woodcock, Ma’a Nonu, Aaron Smith, Jamie Mackintosh, Ben Smith, Hosea Gear and Andrew Hore.
Visit their official website thehighlanders.co.nz and you should spot a pre-season posting that was not unjustifiably optimistic at the time in suggesting that with “a number of new faces” in the ranks, “a very exciting season” was in prospect.
Frankly, I expected playoffs potential from them; instead they have consistently played havoc with my weekly SuperBru predictions for Super Rugby (I have almost unfailingly kept on tipping them for backlash wins, all of them perpetually elusive, alas).
So what price some overdue cheer for their boisterous “Scarfies” fans at Forsyth Barr Stadium this weekend?
You’ve got to think the hosts have a pretty good chance, especially if the Sharks enter the fixture with any fatal mindset of a straightforward day at the office.
Not that that ought to be the case, as the mid-table tourists have had so much upheaval of their own, albeit more of an injury-hoodoo than necessarily form-related kind: they are only too aware that they are “up against it” in so many ways themselves.
They played spiritedly and incisively enough in patches, during the 37-29 reverse to the Chiefs last time out, to suggest that a stabilising first win in four starts may be just around the corner.
Then again, there were also phases of the game, especially early on, where the Sharks’ defence at close quarters was a wretched mess, and the Highlanders will be mindful of a certain, general fallibility and fragility in the visitors’ camp at present.
The Sharks will be feeling so much more gung-ho again once influential personalities like Willem Alberts
(presumably fairly imminent) and Bismarck du Plessis have re-entered the mix, but the million-dollar question is: will their playoffs challenge have fizzled by then?
At least on paper on Saturday, the Highlanders’ starting XV should look a really good match for the Sharks, particularly as there is some talk in the New Zealand media that fit-again All Black midfielder Tamati Ellison may be vaulted straight into the line-up despite not having played any rugby yet in 2013.
The Highlanders also come off the merciful relief of a bye, which has given them plenty of scope for introspection and re-assessment - no doubt they plan a serious “new leaf” in the second half of their ordinary-season programme.
Coach Jamie Joseph was quoted in the Otago Daily Times on Tuesday as saying: “We just need to look at simplifying things and get a fresh start for everyone. I thought in our last match (against the Crusaders) we did some good things and were not far away.”
These teams have met only once previously since the change to the conference system in 2011: at Kings Park last year the Sharks won 28-16, despite each team scoring one try and the entire Sharks tally coming from Pat Lambie (try, conversion and seven penalties).
The Sharks won’t care in the slightest if productive use of the kicking tee by Lambie proves their passage to a Dunedin win, and that they “box ugly” just to grind out four precious log points.
Defeat to the wooden-spoonists? Now that would really be a booming signal that the Sharks are on the very verge of also-ran status as well ... *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing