Vodacom Super Rugby
Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Sharks knocked, but not cold
Cape Town – It might be tempting by some to brand the Sharks in a measure of “disarray” after successive defeats to New Zealand sides in Super Rugby.
They are not.
The Durban-based franchise remain very handily placed both in terms of the South African conference and overall table after their losing, but far from unsubstantial role in turning Sunday’s Twickenham clash with the poignancy-fuelled Crusaders into a quite brilliant advertisement for southern hemisphere rugby on the other side of the equator.
Many teams would have folded after the spectacular first-half barrage of attacking finesse by Dan Carter, Sonny Bill Williams and company, which saw the Cantabrians open up a 24-point lead and bank the four-try bonus point with ridiculous ease.
But as admiring TV commentator and former England flyhalf Stuart Barnes observed: “South African teams just don’t know when they are beaten.”
That spirit was perfectly encapsulated midway through the second period – here the Sharks produced some slightly different-styled vibrancy of their own – when Ryan Kankowski took a cynical, no-arms challenge from the very same Williams which must have come close to cracking his jaw.
It was the only, rather sickening blemish on an otherwise stellar day for the spirit and allure of rugby union, yet the increasingly steely No 8, after a few seconds resembling a new-born Bambi, just got up and got on with his mostly dynamic job.
The Crusaders were simply awesome in the “Twickers” sunshine, let it be said.
The combo of string-pulling genius Carter at pivot and rugged, multi-skilled Williams at No 12 caused all sorts of headaches for the Sharks defence (as it would have any, I think)during their blitz spell ahead of the break, whilst the New Zealanders’ set scrum was a thing of quite frightening eight-man intent and brute power.
And yet the “away” team (let’s not lose sight of that very fact in pure fixture-schedule terms!) certainly lived to see another day.
Apart from the obvious never-say-surrender spirit, the Sharks produced periods of fine continuity themselves, particularly in the tight-loose where their pack showed customary zeal and muscle, and there are many worse fates than coming away from a meeting with an on-fire Crusaders with a well-earned bonus point of your own.
Indeed, a surreal comeback for a hugely unlikely victory flickered fairly promisingly at one stage, when only the iffy place-kicking of Jacques-Louis Potgieter and later Meyer Bosman stopped the Sharks from getting back within the morale-boosting seven-point range of their foes.
Who knows, had that occurred a few Crusaders hearts might have suddenly missed a few beats?
Of course it would be foolish to put too optimistic a spin on what, when all is said and done, was still a 16-point reverse for John Smit’s team.
They still have pretty worrisome issues at lineout time, where no one player has stood out as a really safe haven on their own throw - presumably this responsibility needs to come from either or both of Alistair Hargreaves and Steven Sykes, although the second-row firm cannot be faulted for work-rate in other facets.
And the scrum, after the Twickenham humbling, requires a wee fresh visit to the drawing board, especially after one desperately traumatic one where the Crusaders’ eight ran them backwards and trampled any luckless soul left in the wake.
Significantly, it stabilised to a fair degree when the outstanding Beast Mtawarira, playing in all respects like a grizzly bear with a migraine on Sunday, replaced captain Smit at loosehead prop.
The ageing Bok skipper, alas, is becoming only an increasing (rather than the desired other way around) hot potato for international plans later in the year: at the moment he is just not producing any personal “wow” factor to assure folk his competence in the front row matches his known leadership prowess.
Still, as stated earlier, the Sharks are really not in a bad place, still fourth on the overall standings and second in SA, and with their four-match overseas tour now satisfyingly behind them: the Currie Cup champions need not feel horrifically daunted by any of 10 remaining conference matches all on South African turf – and six in Durban.
Keep in mind that they banked 12 points from a possible 20 abroad, a situation they would have been mightily tempted to settle for, I’m sure, ahead of the long haul(s).
They have also not had a bye yet, and the opportunity that presents for those rather stupid, complicating four extra log points each time.
Perhaps their worst enemy ahead of the crunch home meeting this Saturday with the in-form, conference-leading Stormers, will not be so much the arduous flight home – time difference between South Africa and the UK is presently an agreeable one hour, after all! – as the quick, six-day turnaround after such a grand, yet stamina-sapping spectacle in London ...Remaining Sharks conference fixtures:
Stormers (h), Lions (h), Hurricanes (h), Stormers (a), Brumbies (h), Bulls (h), Waratahs (h), Cheetahs (a), Lions (a), Bulls (a).