Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Win their remaining two matches, without even
the need for a bonus point either time, and the Sharks will be guaranteed the luxury
of a Super Rugby 2014 home semi-final at the very least.
Without even playing last weekend, when the Australasian
teams played a curtailed round without any South African involvement, Jake
White’s charges moved a valuable step closer to ensuring that attractive berth
because of the Crusaders’ 16-9 loss to the Hurricanes in Wellington.
What that meant is the currently second-lying Sharks now knowing
that a further eight points – in other words, standard away victories over the
Cheetahs and Stormers respectively – takes them to a total of 53, out of reach
of both nearest challengers the ‘Saders and Highlanders who can only get to a
maximum of 52 (and only one of that New Zealand pair can reach the tally).
Neither Sharks outcome can exactly be regarded as a fait
accompli, of course, given the brutality and desperation that accompanies just
about all SA derbies, coupled with the fact that coach White faces some
difficult selection choices for Saturday night in Bloemfontein (19:10) given
the high fatigue levels of a few of his Springbok pack members.
Nevertheless the Durban-based side really must try to throw
everything into eking out that precious brace of wins: a home semi also means
the seriously welcome (at this stage of the season) luxury of a bye week ahead
of the game.
The incentive obviously still flickers, too, of the Sharks topping
the overall table to put them in the frame for a home final into the bargain.
But that prospect dipped at the weekend when the in-form
Waratahs, who have now won five on the trot, thrashed local, injury-hit rivals
the Brumbies with a bonus point in Sydney to roar into top spot, three points
clear of the Sharks.
Although their captain Dave Dennis ruptured a cruciate
ligament to be sidelined for the next few months, a cruelly untimely
development for the NSW outfit, the ‘Tahs can facilitate the likelihood of a
home showpiece by winning (also without the need for bonus points) both
remaining ordinary-season clashes at home to the Highlanders and away to the
As with the Sharks’ own run-in, neither outcome can be taken
for granted but smart money suggests they will probably do it.
So the South African pace-setters, already confirmed as
domestic conference winners, have to set as a priority ensuring they don’t end
in the greatly less favourable third spot on the overall table, which means an
extra game in the finals series and guaranteed overseas travel for the semi if
they get there.
That could feasibly yet happen if the Sharks slip just once
in the next fortnight, because it potentially opens the gate for the Crusaders
or Highlanders to bounce them into third even if it must be taken into account
that those two play each other in the last round.
The Sharks would not feel too massively daunted by the
possibility, further down the line, that they have to go to Sydney for a
once-off final challenge straight off a home semi, even if history reminds that
no team has yet crossed the Indian Ocean to or from South Africa to win a
They do boast the Waratahs’ scalp in ordinary season this
year, a convincing 32-10 triumph at Kings Park in late March.
Meanwhile the Bulls, currently lying a distant 10th
overall, perhaps retain just the very tiniest of mathematical chances that they
could yet slip into the top six for the playoffs.
But it is an interesting thought nevertheless that if three
results elsewhere in the next round over the coming weekend were to go their
way, and they can wallop the Stormers at Newlands with a bonus point, the
Loftus crew could climb to as high as seventh – just one spot out of the finals
series places with one further round to go.
matches (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):
Friday: Chiefs v Hurricanes,
09:35; Lions v Rebels, 19:10. Saturday: Crusaders v Blues, 09:35; Force v Reds,
11:40; Stormers v Bulls, 17:05; Cheetahs v Sharks, 19:10. Sunday: Waratahs v
Highlanders, 08:05. Bye: Brumbies.
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