Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – The Sharks have stretched their Super Rugby lead over nearest SA conference challengers the Bulls to a gaping nine points with a match in hand ... and taking it still further looks a pretty strong prospect next weekend.
You won’t get too many arguments over which of the two has the easier fixture then: while the Sharks return to Durban to tackle the second-from-bottom overall Cheetahs, the Bulls start the two-game Australian phase of their overseas leg against the uncompromising Waratahs in Sydney.
Following two losses in New Zealand plus failure to win their last Loftus game (the draw against the Chiefs) from a great position, it cannot be said that the Bulls’ prospects next up are marvellous.
By contrast, the Sharks will be much more heavily tipped to see off the free-running but also dreadfully porous Cheetahs in their beloved hometown “Tank”.
Bismarck du Plessis and company come off a hard-fought but ultimately clear-cut 13-point triumph over the fading Lions at Ellis Park on Saturday night, leaving them comfortably enough atop the overall standings with one game to go to mark the halfway point of their 16-game ordinary season phase.
Their next assignment sees them take on the peculiar outfit who have registered the best “points for” (213) of all Super Rugby teams thus far, but also the worst “points against” (303).
That situation was not helped by Naka Drotske’s charges letting the Crusaders post 52 against them, including six tries, and again losing their shape most significantly in the final quarter, as had happened in the ping-pong against the Chiefs in Bloemfontein only a week earlier.
Although they managed four dot-downs of their own in defeat, the Cheetahs should not feel too chipper about crossing the Sharks’ whitewash often next Saturday – a welcome afternoon kick-off for the Kings Park faithful – as the Sharks are the team with the best defensive record in terms of points concession.
Their aggressive and energetic defence, on relatively rare occasions that the Lions threatened their try-line, frustrated the home side to the extent that they began conceding discipline-related penalties more and more frequently as the Sharks’ superior composure and class helped them turn the screws.
Taking some of the gloss off the victory – a four-try bonus points was never on the cards – was flyhalf Fred Zeilinga pulling a hamstring to join Pat Lambie on the No 10 injured list, although that simply meant big Frans Steyn was able to seamlessly shift one berth closer to the action and impose himself in all sorts of ways.
He is likely to settle there for the next few weeks; the Sharks’ casualty situation at pivot will only turn genuinely serious if Steyn – all touch wood in KZN against it happening! – were to succumb to personal mishap as well.
Something that may be making all fellow title-chasers nervous is that the Sharks, for all their intensity and purpose (exemplified by someone like the tireless and constructive flanker Marcell Coetzee), probably aren’t even quite the finished article yet in terms of their accuracy and option-taking on attack: this team potentially has hitherto unseen, extra strings to its bow.
The overall log at present will give very mixed feelings to South African observers wishing all our sides to prosper ... in short, they aren’t.
While the Sharks fly the national flag confidently in the best real estate overall, the rest of the conference teams now occupy four of the slots in the bottom eight, even if the Bulls and Lions can still harbour some hopes of making the playoffs.
But the Pretoria-based outfit igniting their tour against the Waratahs has become a matter of some urgency – if they crash again and the Sharks win back home, it will be extremely tempting to pronounce the conference a one-horse race even with the knowledge that the Sharks still have to go abroad themselves.
Nominally, the “main” SA-staged attraction next weekend is the other derby between the Stormers and Lions. Instead it already looks suspiciously like a meeting of two also-rans in playoffs terms.
Some consolation is that it could be very close: in pre-season you’d have considered this a near-banker for the Stormers, but the Lions – even though successive Ellis Park matches have brought them no log points – may still believe they have a better than 50-50 crack at winning this one at Newlands ...
*Next weekend’s fixtures (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):
Friday: Hurricanes v Blues, 09:35; Rebels v Force, 11:40. Saturday: Chiefs v Crusaders, 09:35; Waratahs v Bulls, 11:40; Sharks v Cheetahs, 15:00; Stormers v Lions, 17:05. Byes: Highlanders, Brumbies, Reds.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing