Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – The failure of the Bulls to look remotely like a Super Rugby title-chasing factor this season is making it increasingly likely that the Sharks will comfortably eclipse them to third South African qualifying berth in this year’s quarter-finals.
The Lions (especially impressive again in Africa Conference 2) and Stormers (clear leaders in Africa 1 despite four recent reverses on the trot) still seem hugely favoured to top their pools after ordinary season and bank home quarter-finals each.
But there is also a remaining away knockout fixture in the last eight up for grabs from the “South African” collective of eight sides, if you add in the presence among them of the Argentinean-based Jaguares and Japanese Sunwolves.
For the second season in succession, and based on the table situation after round 11, the odds strongly favour the Sharks being that third SA booking into the knockout phase, alongside the better-seeded Lions and Stormers – and again with the likelihood of having to travel overseas from KZN once more for their quarter-final, assuming they do end as runners-up in Africa 2.
Few Sharks fans need reminding of the outcome of that fixture in 2016: they ran into an almost freakish windstorm in Wellington and were blitzed 41-0 by the aptly-named Hurricanes, rather more used to such conditions and the fresher side even before the start.
Still, they would have been relieved enough just to have made it that far, given how close compatriots the Bulls, from the other local conference, came to pipping them to the third qualifying spot: the Loftus-based side (42) ended one agonising log point short of the Sharks (43).
That was far more of a close shave than the Sharks got from within their own conference where the Jaguares, on competition debut last year, ended as many as 21 points behind them in third.
This season, the tables appear to have turned firmly emphatically in the race to put heat on the Sharks for the “extra” knockout berth: in 2017 it is the Bulls showing little lustre and the much-improved South American unit a bigger threat.
It is very hard to envisage the Bulls (14 points from nine games) doing enough over the remaining six rounds for them to haul in the Sharks (32 from 10), never mind even conference rivals the Stormers (26 from 10) … so dare we pronounce that the once-mighty outfit from Pretoria are KO write-offs already?
Maybe the only remaining danger to the Sharks’ knockout-stage aspirations, then, are Agustin Creevy’s Jaguares.
The Argentineans, though, will have it all to do from here if they are to vault the Kings Park-housed team.
As things stand, with five matches left each, the Sharks boast an eight-point advantage, so the Jaguares have got to basically make up two standard victories over them and then also a bonus point (bearing in mind that they also lag behind on points differential, by 32) in the remaining rounds to steal a quarter-final position.
There is a good chance that the gap between the two sides may stay more or less unaltered after round 12 this weekend: I would expect the Jaguares to beat the Force in Buenos Aires, while the Sharks should similarly see off the Kings in Port Elizabeth.
Make no mistake, the Kings are suddenly fighting tooth and nail in performance terms to preserve their Super Rugby status, even if a great many critics already believe they are effectively six feet under.
There is talk of a welcome, significant crowd being drawn to the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium for Saturday’s derby (17:15), although the Sharks still just seem to carry too many big guns for the plucky Eastern Cape crew.
So it is possible that the Jaguares may then only have four rounds left at their disposal for the dramatic turnaround that potentially unseats Robert du Preez’s charges from the quarters and sees them sneak in instead.
Both teams, under current circumstances, have three home and two away fixtures yet to play, and each must still contemplate some form of international travel: the Sharks have a short-lived trek to Singapore to play the Sunwolves, whereas the Jaguares face a two-match trip to Australia right at the business end.
My expectation at this point, and I quite probably won’t be alone on this, is an exact replica of the 2016 situation: home quarter-finals for the Lions and Stormers, away one for the Sharks.
Here are the full remaining itineraries of the Sharks and Jaguares:
Sharks (played 10, 32 points): Kings (a), Sunwolves (a), Stormers (h), Bulls (h), Lions (h)
Jaguares (played 10, 24 points): Force (h), Brumbies (h), Kings (h), Waratahs (a), Rebels (a)
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