Rob Houwing, Sport 24 chief writer
Cape Town - Whilst they entered their bye weekend safe in the knowledge that they’d remain top overall anyway, the Sharks would have been generally satisfied with results in their absence in the latest round of Super Rugby.
By the end of it, and having been the only side out of action, they found themselves still a pretty comfortable two points clear of their nearest challengers the Brumbies – last season’s losing finalists – and with a game in hand over them.
The Australian outfit comfortably beat the Blues 26-9 at a wet Canberra Stadium, but just failed to land the four-try bonus point.
Meanwhile defending champions the Chiefs, now three points shy of the Sharks in third after as many matches, ended their South African mini-tour with the sort of harvest they will probably never see again: six points out of a possible 10 courtesy of successive freak, high-scoring draws with both the Bulls and Cheetahs.
They will consider it a decent return, bearing in mind the broad struggle thus far by teams travelling abroad this season to earn successes.
Sharks coach Jake White will have been in two minds about whether to laud or curse the Cheetahs after Saturday’s 43-43 heart-stopper in Bloemfontein.
On the negative side, it was almost unbelievable that Naka Drotske’s charges could choke from a seemingly unassailable situation of 34-10 up against the Chiefs at the break.
But defence has seldom been the Cheetahs’ strongest suit and by the end it was most worrying that the home team were virtually walking in Highveld conditions that are supposed to be South African teams’ big ally in the last 20 minutes or so of matches.
As critic Nick Mallett pointed out afterwards, a pattern is developing of visiting New Zealand teams – either the All Blacks or Super Rugby outfits – finishing more strongly than their local foes at altitude.
Is it a conditioning matter, or more related to deficiencies in the local style of play where holding onto the ball for protracted periods is an increasingly rare phenomenon?
Still, the brighter side from an ambitious Sharks perspective about pulsating events in “Bloem” was that before the game, smart money arguably suggested a five-point full house for the Chiefs, and they did come up two short of that mark.
In SA conference terms, weekend losses for the Bulls and Lions – both now among a huge, tightly-bunched mid-table sort of contingent on the overall log – also only meant that the men from Durban fortified their status at the top of the five-strong pile.
The Sharks now sport a six-point cushion over the Bulls with a game in hand, whilst their lead over the Lions is seven points, also with an extra fixture lurking in the bank.
The Lions were typically never-say-die in their home reverse to the mildly awakening Crusaders, but should only fall further off the pace when the very Sharks go to Johannesburg for a derby next Saturday evening.
Make no mistake, we can consider the Cheetahs and Stormers also-rans for the playoffs: I will eat my laptop’s keys with peanut butter if either now cracks the top six at the end of ordinary season.
The Stormers had the loyal backing of some 25 000 patient supporters for the late game against the Waratahs at Newlands, but after some “brave new dawn” moments – or read: a well-constructed backline try surprise – in the opening period for the home side, the fixture then simply drifted toward an inevitable outcome in favour of the muscular, screw-tightening Australians.
Certain former Newlands favourites, I observed on Twitter, were flabbergasted when, 11 points down in the closing minutes, the Stormers were still falling back into old, clueless ways of gormlessly kicking the ball away because they are culturally averse these days to keeping it boldly in hand even when last chance saloon so glaringly beckons.
Good luck in your rebuild drive, Gert Smal!
A silver lining, perhaps, is that after next weekend’s bye the Stormers should see certain key stalwarts gradually filtering back from the casualty ward.
Maybe that will help the coaching booth of Messrs Coetzee, Proudfoot and Fleck look less downbeat: towards the end of the ‘Tahs game all three gentlemen only looked as though they were straightening their ties for a funeral.
I take no great satisfaction, believe me, from pointing out that my prediction, ahead of the latest round, that no SA team would win a game proved correct (and no, I didn’t anticipate the Cheetahs’ 86-point draw).
But it does illustrate my wariness – perhaps much more broadly shared? – about the quality of the remaining South African protagonists this season when the Sharks are off duty ...
Next round of matches (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):
Friday: Highlanders v Bulls, 09:35; Reds v Brumbies, 11:40. Saturday: Chiefs v Rebels, 09:35; Force v Waratahs, 11:40; Cheetahs v Crusaders, 17:05; Lions v Sharks, 19:10. Byes: Stormers, Hurricanes, Blues.
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