Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – While time remains on their side for a turnaround, a real possibility exists now that the Sharks have permanently surrendered top spot in Africa Conference 2 of Vodacom Super Rugby this year.
Victory was vital for them in their top-of-table home clash with the Lions on Saturday, but the fact that the visitors – superior for pure desire, too – instead outsmarted them 24-9 at a muted Kings Park for a four-nil log points outcome could have massive ramifications for who tops the conference at the end of ordinary season and advances straight to a home quarter-final.
It’s simple: the Lions have become firm favourites from here.
The Durban win saw the Highvelders turn a two-point deficit into a two-point lead, and comfortable in the knowledge that they could open the gap rather more widely in the next few weeks if they keep their eyes properly on the ball.
So much looks in their favour when you examine the remaining fixtures for each franchise: not only is there still a Johannesburg-staged derby rematch between them in early July, where the Lions are logically likely to be the favourites in another effective “double points” affair, but the Sharks are about to embark on a highly challenging three-game tour of New Zealand.
It is well less than ideal that, coming off successive home defeats to the Crusaders and Lions and before that a draw at Loftus, Gary Gold’s strangely faltering charges now face on successive weekends the Blues, Highlanders and Chiefs.
There’s no rest for the wicked when they return home, either: it’s straight into a meeting with another NZ crew, the free-spirited Hurricanes, and then another across-the-time-zones trek to play the Jaguares in Buenos Aires.
Find the string of bankers for Sharks wins amongst that lot under present circumstances – although admittedly the Blues do carry a hint of “beatability” at Eden Park on Saturday -- and I will find you a Sesfikile taxi driver who has never broken a single rule of the road in a bustling SA metropolis.
The Lions, by contrast, are safely done with Australasian travel and looking forward to eight of their last nine pre-knockout obligations all on South African soil.
While the Sharks play four sides from pace-setting New Zealand in a row over the next four weekends, Warren Whiteley and company tackle Africa Conference 1 leaders the Stormers in the Big Smoke on Saturday (how the Sharks will pray for a visiting triumph there!), then the fragile Kings in Port Elizabeth and Hurricanes at Emirates Airline Park, before a refreshing bye.
Right from the start of the competition, it was widely recognised that the Sharks faced the most enviable of fixture lists of all the serious SA title challengers, and they desperately needed to have got on the long-haul flight with a firm foothold at the top of the conference; that has notably failed to materialise.
Not aiding them at all on Saturday was the Bulls later romping to a 38-6 victory over the Kings in Port Elizabeth to stay well in touch with the Stormers in the other group.
By moving to 19 points, four short of the Capetonians, the Bulls also clicked ahead of the Sharks (16) on the overall SA table, meaning that if ordinary season hypothetically ended tomorrow, they would be the wildcard third, extra team from these shores clinching a quarter-final berth.
To compound their wretched round, the Sharks saw Springbok open-side livewire Marcell Coetzee succumb to what looked potentially a serious knee injury before half-time against the Lions, so they will be having to shuffle their loose trio cards on tour – at least it is one area where they have solid depth.
The Lions were very decent value for their triumph, even if they seldom managed to produce the kind of champagne attacking fare they have demonstrated plentifully in the early weeks of the competition; regrettably this was another local derby in which the combatants somehow dragged each other progressively down to clumsy, unimaginative levels.
Gold has a much bigger job on his hands, though, in trying to re-establish some zip and X-factor in his ranks, and the Sharks scrum was badly exposed, into the bargain.
Across the wide “ditch”, you can be sure they’ll have taken shrewd note …
Next weekend’s fixtures (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):
Friday: Crusaders v Jaguares, 09:35; Rebels v Hurricanes, 11:45; Cheetahs v Sunwolves, 19:00. Saturday: Blues v Sharks, 09:35; Waratahs v Brumbies, 11:45; Bulls v Reds, 17:05; Lions v Stormers, 19:15. Byes: Chiefs, Force, Highlanders, Kings.
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