Vodacom Super Rugby
Sharks shy of title mettle
Cape Town - They call it Good Friday ... but there was little decent about the Sharks’ Super Rugby capitulation to the Hurricanes in New Plymouth.
In crashing 42-18 to the moderate New Zealanders, who admittedly played a little above themselves on the day, and by a rather gory six tries to two, most neutrals probably saw enough to deduce that once again the Sharks do not look like truly credible title-chasing material.
They emerged tenuously placed in both overall log terms and in the South African conference, with three wins and four losses.
There is also one more tour obligation to complete before their return to our shores - a battle of the colossal modern under-achievers in this competition as they square up to the inexplicably ailing Blues in Auckland (considerably more off the pace than they are, of course) next Friday.
Knowing the ever-unpredictable Sharks, they will probably win that one and restore a flicker of hope to their campaign ... just don’t count too heavily on it after what happened against the ‘Canes.
But even if they were to prevail at Eden Park against Keven Mealamu and company, there are just too many current holes in the Durban team’s armoury to suggest that they will end up as legitimate contenders for a maiden title success.
It is true that in remaining fixture terms, even another reverse in Auckland would not completely elbow the Sharks out of the play-offs picture.
With a stretch of eight games back in South Africa, and six of them in Durban, the second half of the conference campaign looks favourable on paper for John Plumtree’s charges.
They have two byes still in the bag, which certainly helps, plus the knowledge that the two presently strongest compatriot sides, the Stormers and Bulls, have already been tackled away and must yet visit Mr Price Kings Park.
But there’s much head-scratching and soul-searching to do if the Sharks are, from here, to fare any better than just squeezing into the playoffs mix, as they did on the last day of ordinary-season activity last year before the unfavourable knockout draw - the “punishment” for being sixth overall - quickly saw them bombed out abroad by the Crusaders, eventual losing finalists.
There are plenty of elements to their squad that suggest the Sharks should be riding consistently higher among the big guns of Super Rugby, yet something also doesn’t quite add up from a routine efficiency point of view.
In the latest match, their defence around the fringes but also, to a lesser extent, out wide was exposed - and not for the first time - for the sort of brittleness you get when you try to lift a plastic bag loaded with bricks; it simply “gives” with absurd ease.
This is an area where the Stormers, by contrast, have looked light years more competent and clinical over the past two seasons, going a long way to explaining why they continue to find themselves on superior terrain in the competition.
Especially in the first half at Yarrow Stadium, field position and “go-forward” hardly represented a problem, but the Sharks’ penchant for surrendering composure (also read: the ball!) at key times near the opposition try-line meant the Hurricanes were able to create sudden havoc at the other end of the park.
Clearly buoyed by their early, bonus counter-strikes, the ‘Canes were able to open up a 14-point lead well within the first quarter and it was just the self-belief tonic they needed after the fiasco of their 47-38 loss to the Cheetahs from a platform of 32-11 in their favour.
The Sharks were even further in the soup by half-time, doubtless wondering how they could find themselves 25-3 down, and although they found flashes of comeback inspiration soon after the break, their fire was again snuffed out as the barn door at the wrong end continued to flap disconcertingly rather than bolt itself shut.
Yes, the Sharks were hampered at times by dubious officiating from Glen Jackson, and some borderline TMO calls that also went against them - it led to some frayed tempers in a feisty contest and there could be some citing repercussions after the referee brandished the revolutionary new white card following a mass flare-up with an increasingly irritable Jannie du Plessis not far at all from the fulcrum of things.
But they can’t play victims. Denial of their shortcomings will get them nowhere.
Captain Keegan Daniel, one of the better-functioning Sharks players on a day when too many team-mates would tick a box one minute and earn a cross the next, did concede afterwards that they’d been “pretty slack in some areas”.
Bluntly, the Sharks are presently not good enough to warrant status anywhere above the mid-table region they occupy.*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing