Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - I suggested before the start of the new-look Super Rugby season that regardless of who actually won it, the Sharks would be my tip as best-performing South African franchise.GALLERY: Sporting siblingsGALLERY: Super Rugby Week 10
My belief was based primarily around the depth of their squad at forward, a vital element for a successful, elongated campaign (the abrasive Jean Deysel returning to contention from long-term injury is a mightily handy fresh device for them, for instance, as we head toward the run-in period).
Well, more than halfway into the regular-season programme, it has obviously been tempting to revise my theory, given that the Stormers continue to set the South African pace and have slightly confounded my expectations by building gradually on their renaissance of last season.
In a nutshell, the Stormers are a smart outfit who play to their strengths and are aware of their weaknesses. They are hard to beat, even if they seldom win terribly easily.
But I am stubbornly not going to downgrade my Sharks forecast, mostly because I still fancy that they have a kinder remaining fixture list -- and might pip their big coastal rivals to best SA finish even if they crash to them (the Stormers ought to be just about billed as favourites) in a top-of-conference meeting under lights at Newlands on Saturday.
For one thing, John Smit’s men still have another bye weekend ahead, and the guaranteed four bonus points that will bring, while the Stormers have now exhausted both theirs.
And the Capetonians must yet get their passports out of the drawer for a four-match overseas tour, including what suddenly shapes up as an especially formidable barrier in the form of the Blues in Auckland: they have leapfrogged the Crusaders to pole position on the New Zealand conference log.
So I’ll probably be sticking with my Sharks theory, whatever happens this weekend.
But I also do so without any special reason to trumpet their majesty at present, because doubts must remain, even after they earned a full-house victory over the Hurricanes on Saturday, about the title-seeking appetite of John Plumtree’s charges.
Maybe I was just having a glass-half-empty sort of day, but far from the “impressive” I saw it labelled as, I thought their latest win was a distinctly flattering one, against a ‘Canes side who look their weakest in years - still with some traditional, attacking oomph but quite woefully inept in terms of defensive organisation and tackling desire.
And frankly, the Sharks made heavy weather of downing them, when you bear in mind that they trailed at various stages and basically got their “win momentum” in the final quarter courtesy of that old South African get-off-the-hook favourite – the long-range intercept try, thanks to Lwazi Mvovo’s moment of opportunism and decisive turn of speed.
They were turned over too easily in the first half, with mass-ranked personnel often a little slow to the breakdown, even if the personally impressive Smit rightly said afterwards that they rectified this snag to a good extent in the noticeably more urgent second period.
Their lineout remains vulnerable, the front row selection dynamic ever-awkward and tough for Plumtree to manage, while the current midfield alliance of Meyer Bosman and long-in-the-tooth Stefan Terblanche has a slightly unconvincing, porous look about it, to my mind.
Watching games at Mr Price Kings Park, there always seem to be spookily “silent” periods where the Sharks go into a kind of listless, meandering mode and crowd enthusiasm becomes muted ... is there perhaps a lingering feeling among the local faithful that their beloved troops aren’t quite ready to land that elusive, desperately-desired Super Rugby title for the first time?
Be that as it may, there is a case for saying there can’t be too much wrong if the Sharks are occasionally struggling to better third gear yet winning nevertheless -- and also having fewer problems than the Stormers in landing four-try bonus points, it must be said.
Maybe the Sharks are holding something back and intend shrewdly timing their charge to perfection in this first-time Super Rugby “ultra-marathon”.
Certainly if they were to slightly upset the apple cart at Newlands, they would immediately be looking very healthily situated indeed to finish as conference winners, whatever their present list of warts ...