Sharks, WP in 'home' run

2010-09-20 06:58

Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

Cape Town – Coastal semi-finals in the Absa Currie Cup have moved ever nearer after the latest round of matches.

The log-leading Sharks seem virtually unstoppable now, having banked a full house of log points against fellow-semis contenders the Free State Cheetahs on Saturday to retain an eight-point gap over Western Province with only three weekends of round-robin fare left.

Indeed, they may well have the luxury of not needing anything out of their final league fixture against the very same Province at Newlands on October 9, provided that they beat the Lions in Johannesburg next weekend and then bag a routine home victory against the winless Leopards.

So there is the possibility of an uncannily similar scenario to the last round of Vodacom Super 14 matches this year, when the Bulls opted to field a largely second-string side against the Stormers because finishing top of the table was already assured.

Again the Capetonians might find themselves “beneficiaries” of such a policy, given that the Sharks may cocoon some core personnel for the semis a week later.

That said, several Springboks presently out of competition will be available by then and probably in need of game-time, so the visitors ought to be keen to field the likes of Bismarck du Plessis, John Smit, Jannie du Plessis, JP Pietersen and Beast Mtawarira.

Encouragingly, though, their “reserve” front row played an influential role in subduing the Cheetahs 30-16, despite the visiting outfit fielding such highly-touted individuals as Coenie Oosthuizen, Adriaan Strauss and WP Nel.

There was also a robust showing from Ryan Kankowski at No 8: he seems hell-bent this season on proving he is capable of honest donkey work rather than just featuring as a game-breaking stallion in open play.

WP confirmed that their mid-campaign wobble is a thing of the past with their high-tempo trampling of the Pumas at Mbombela Stadium on Friday night, and they appear to be hitting a renewed upward curve at a handy time.

They will need to sustain it, because after Griquas at Newlands this Friday comes a stiff run-in featuring the Blue Bulls at Loftus and then the Sharks crunch – but two wins from their three remaining games is a nice incentive to bank a home semi-final.

Also to consider is that, although the third-placed Bulls certainly have a shout at ending second, WP’s five-point superiority is also fortified by an immeasurably better “for and against” situation: they are 216 points in credit to the Bulls’ mere 34.

So somehow the Bulls may well have to be six log points better than Province over the last three weeks of pre-semis action in order to nose ahead.

The champions will simply be relieved at present to have broken a promising unbeaten run by the improving Lions in the Highveld derby, pipping them 24-21 to move up two places and simultaneously elbow the Johannesburg-based team back into fifth.

It was far from plain sailing at Loftus for the Bulls, but remember that they have been the worst-affected side by Springbok absenteeism and just getting into the semis is the overwhelming objective right now – once their full quota of Boks return they will not especially fear the prospect of a knockout phase likely to be entirely “on the road”.

The Lions are far from ready to be world-beaters yet, but even in gutsy defeat (they had seemed right out of it at 24-9 early in the final quarter) they did demonstrate the renewed pride in the jersey that has been sparked by the coaching qualities of John Mitchell and Carlos Spencer.

Unfortunately for them, the Cheetahs, now one spot and one point ahead of the Lions in fourth, have the easier run-in of the two – including a potentially highly influential meeting between those very foes with the advantage of it being in Bloemfontein in a fortnight.

Griquas in sixth are not out of the picture, by any means, as they lurk only two points off a “last four” position as things stand.

But they have a tough trio of games, starting in Cape Town on Friday and also including the visit of the Bulls to Kimberley on the final day of the round-robin phase.

Remaining fixtures for the top six sides:

Sharks (46 points): Lions (away), Leopards (home), WP (away)
WP (38 points): Griquas (home), Bulls (away), Sharks (home)
Blue Bulls (33 points): Leopards (away), WP (home), Griquas (away)
Cheetahs (32 points): Pumas (home), Lions (home), Leopards (away)
Lions (31 points): Sharks (home), Cheetahs (away), Pumas (home)
Griquas (30 points): WP (away), Pumas (away), Bulls (home)