Testing times ahead for Sharks
Sydney - Victory in Melbourne on Friday kept the Sharks top of the Super Rugby standings but trips to Canberra, Christchurch and Auckland over the next three weeks will sorely test the Durban-based outfit's title credentials.
The 22-16 victory over the Rebels broke a 12-game win drought in Australasia for South African teams this season but it is quite conceivable that it could turn out to be the only four-pointer of the tour for Jake White's men.
The good news is that the miserable form of the other South African teams means the Sharks would have to implode spectacularly over the final seven rounds of the season not to win the conference and march into the playoffs.
The bad news is that over the next three weeks they play an Brumbies side turned into Super Rugby finalists by White last season, a Crusaders side who have finally hit their intimidating stride and an Blues side that cannot lose at home.
The Crusaders, with Richie McCaw back on board, put the Brumbies to the sword 40-20 on Saturday for their sixth win of a season that started with two defeats.
Coach Todd Blackadder thinks they can still get better.
"We've got to tidy up some areas," he told Fairfax media.
"The defence, especially in the last 15 minutes, leaked some easy yards off the inside pass. We've got to be better than that."
The Crusaders will warm up for the visit of the Sharks with a trip to face the struggling Reds, who looked a shadow of the team that won the 2011 title when they fell 44-14 to the Blues for their fourth successive loss on Friday.
It is not just the defeats that have piled the pressure on Reds coach Richard Graham but the manner of them, with the attacking brio of three years ago gone and the team's two tries coming from the graft and cussedness of the pack.
The Chiefs, who took the title from the Reds in 2012 and kept it last year, returned to the top of the New Zealand conference with a 38-8 win over the Lions on Saturday that ended their two-loss wobble.
The second of those defeats was to the Brumbies, who will be glancing nervously over their shoulders at the Waratahs ahead of the visit of their former coach's charges next weekend.
The Waratahs went into a bye week with a five-try 39-30 victory over the Hurricanes on Saturday that put them a point behind the Brumbies in the Australian conference and well in the hunt for a playoff spot.
The Hurricanes had won their previous four matches and now share second place in the New Zealand conference with the Crusaders and Highlanders, who went down 29-28 to the Stormers in Cape Town.
The Stormers are still propping up the table with the Cheetahs, whose 26-21 loss to the Bulls allowed the three-times champions to move to the edge of the playoff positions with 24 points.
That is still 11 behind the Sharks, who will be hoping to be faced with the uncharacteristically ill-disciplined Brumbies team that lost in Christchurch when they get to Canberra on Saturday.
"There are issues we have to address," White's successor as Brumbies coach, Steve Larkham, told the Canberra Times.
"We need to review if we're making the right decisions and get our discipline right."