Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - The Sharks have stormed back into Super Rugby contention, a satisfying thought for them as they embark on their four-match tour of Australia and then New Zealand.
They produced a decidedly “two moods” sort of performance in snapping the unbeaten record of 2011 champions the Reds in rain-lashed Durban on Saturday, but the thrilling 27-22 outcome left them on an immensely more even keel than they would have been had they surrendered this match.
Three defeats from four early-season matches would have left them at risk of losing touch very badly with the pace-setters in the competition if their overseas leg – traditionally a taxing ask for all South African sides -- was going to be notably unproductive as well.
But they have a bit more breathing space now, following their back-to-back triumphs over the Lions and Reds at home.
And as they undertake the long haul to Sydney for their first tour match against the Waratahs next Saturday (06:35 SA time), John Plumtree’s charges will also reflect on what might count as one of their best ever come-from-behind conquests in Super Rugby.
Speaking afterwards, simultaneously relieved and elated captain Keegan Daniel produced a bit of an under-statement when he said: “We were a bit slack in the first 30 (minutes).”
Frankly, the Sharks seemed nowhere in that period ... outmuscled in the tight-loose, shunted backwards in the scrums, messy in the lineout, and with their defence around the fringes at sixes and sevens as the sniping, slick Queenslanders showed off some of their title-winning pedigree.
Considering the challenging conditions, a 17-0 deficit just after the half-hour mark appeared pretty close to an early death sentence and the relatively poor crowd was suitably muted.
But with Daniel leading by example, that turned out to be as bad as it got; the Sharks suddenly knocked themselves into shape in a major way and were the better side over most of the remaining 50 minutes in a game marked by multiple cases of injury disruption to both teams.
They even came desperately close to a cherry-on-top bonus point for four tries, but would have been delighted enough – you could see it in their demonstrative body language at the final whistle – just to have prevailed.
It was a wrench for them to see stalwart lock Steven Sykes go off on the buggy in the 28th minute, but strangely that was also the cue for a spate of their younger pack members – including his replacement Jandre Marais – to begin to show their truest mettle.
Emerging flank Marcell Coetzee got through a mountain of work, Anton Bresler wasn’t too far behind, and a rather more established, anchor figure in Springbok Bismarck du Plessis was again a physical specimen of massive prominence in the uncanny way he engineered some seemingly unlikely turnovers.
And once they did gain firmer front-foot traction, halfbacks Charl McLeod and Pat Lambie and the consistently improving midfielder Tim Whitehead also got the opportunity to be influential as attacking factors.
The Sharks’ tour schedule does not look too outrageously daunting: even less so, it might be argued, when you consider that all of their quartet of opponents (Waratahs, Brumbies, Hurricanes and Blues) lost this weekend.
Even if there may be a new list of casualties to chew on after a bruising and energy-sapping affair against the Reds, they will also have players like Jean Deysel, Ross Skeate and Ryan Kankowski filtering back into their match-day ranks very shortly.
Next round of fixtures (home teams first):
Friday: Blues v Hurricanes, Rebels v Force.
Saturday: Waratahs v Sharks, Crusaders v Cheetahs, Brumbies v Highlanders, Bulls v Reds, Lions v Stormers. Bye: Chiefs.*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing