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    Sharks shift nearer home semi

    2014-05-18 22:12

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town – Most heroic and memorable Sharks performance ever in Super Rugby?

    Anyone protesting "that’s not so" should be encouraged to produce their contrary evidence as swiftly as possible; I imagine it would be a tall order.

    Just beating seven-time champions the Crusaders for the first time in Christchurch on Saturday would have been ammunition enough; doing it with 14 men for more than three quarters of the contest and only 13 at one stage near the energy-sapping finish was a massive extra feather in the caps of Bismarck du Plessis and company.

    Maybe the nearest most satisfying triumph for long-suffering Sharks supporters – still awaiting that elusive first seizure of the overall silverware, remember – was two years ago, when they had sneaked into the finals series in sixth place.

    It meant a notoriously unfavourable draw for them in that phase, which first involved travelling all the way to Brisbane to knock over the Reds (30-17), then returning to play the table-topping Stormers in a Newlands semi-final only a week later: and they out-muscled the pre-match favourite Capetonians 26-19.

    It was an outstanding, fiercely-committed triumph, and certain long-serving Stormers stalwarts like Jean de Villiers were virtually inconsolable afterwards.

    But the gloss quickly came off that triumph because, understandably, they just could not muster the mojo for the Hamilton showpiece against the Chiefs after another impossibly gruelling trek across time zones, and were beaten 37-6.

    This disposal of the ‘Saders, who were coming off a golden trot of five wins whilst their opponents had lost to the Brumbies the last time out, will live in the Sharks squad’s memory banks for the rest of their lives – not for nothing did Tendai Mtawarira tweet that it was “the best day of my career”.

    Of course there is still a longish road still ahead to the 2014 honours, but this result will have been a quite marvellous tonic to Jake White’s charges, who had been playing without maximum vigour for several weeks despite their high-riding status.

    They will believe they have crossed a great bridge en route to the possible spoils, and ought to be thoroughly re-energised now for the next obstacle – a six-day turnaround to facing the Blues at North Harbour Stadium (the home team’s less intimidating “second” venue) on Friday.

    Admittedly at the time of writing it looked very much as though red-carded flanker Jean Deysel would be out of selection contention for a few weeks, but Willem Alberts moving back to his best station, No 7, from eighth-man duty in Christchurch, and Ryan Kankowski re-entering the starting fray hardly seems the worst plug-the-gap step in the world, does it?

    Already, the Sharks can be said to have achieved the likely “minimum” requirement in their minds on tour of two wins (plus a losing bonus point in Canberra).

    Even if they lose the final Australasian fixture against the Blues, they are highly likely to return to South Africa – where two derbies against the Stormers and one against the Cheetahs remain – still atop the overall table, which is a fine place to be ahead of the final straight on more familiar pitches.

    That is because they are five points clear now of both the second-placed Brumbies and third-placed Chiefs, and a top-two Sharks finish to ensure an all-important home semi-final just looks so much more “on” again after a faltering period.

    The defending champions from New Zealand have played one less match than the others, but they are 40 points worse off in “for and against” terms so they would have to trounce the Hurricanes away with a bonus point next weekend and hope the Sharks take a similar sort of roasting against the Blues and emerge without a single log point to show.

    The Brumbies (55 inferior to the Sharks in points difference), were deservedly upset by the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein in their first SA tour fixture and hardly have the easiest next game in the world, either: they play a desperate Bulls team at Loftus on Friday.

    The equation seems pretty simple for the Pretoria side: win and keep your long-shot playoffs hope alive, lose and be goners.

    Barring an absolute miracle, the Bulls can only get into the finals series now by clawing their way somehow into the top six (from current ninth) overall: the SA conference laurel is all but the Sharks’ property as they have a gigantic 12-point lead with four rounds of matches left each.

    Pleasingly for both the Sharks and Bulls, South African teams collectively had a much more successful latest round against foreign foes than had been the case for many weeks, with the Cheetahs’ result greatly aiding the KwaZulu-Natalians and the Stormers’ victory over the Force at Newlands benefiting the Bulls.

    With the international window period looming large, it was also a reasonably encouraging development for Springbok supporters, easing a climate of despondency about our rugby ...

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

    Friday: Blues v Sharks, 09:35; Rebels v Waratahs, 11:40; Bulls v Brumbies, 19:10. Saturday: Highlanders v Crusaders, 07:35; Hurricanes v Chiefs, 09:35; Force v Lions, 11:40; Stormers v Cheetahs, 17:05. Bye: Reds.

     *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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