Currie Cup

Sharks back in inside lane

2013-09-28 07:07
Fred Zeilinga (Gallo)
Cape Town – A thrilling duo of matches involving the top four teams on the Currie Cup table ended with the Sharks occupying pole position for rights to a possible home final for the second time in as many years.

After yet another fluctuating, pleasing-on-the-eye contest in Johannesburg on Friday, the Sharks edged the Golden Lions 31-25: potentially a massive result in their drive for a Kings Park showpiece on October 26.

They entered the Friday night fixture under fresh pressure after defending champions Western Province, helped by a heartening 20-minute cameo off the bench from finally fit-again Schalk Burger, had squeezed past the Cheetahs 29-27 in Bloemfontein just a short while earlier to open up a four-point log lead.

But then Keegan Daniel and company came roaring back to defeat the Lions, and would not have been overly concerned that they just failed to add to their try tally of three so missed out on a bonus point.

Though back level on overall points (28) with WP, they have a better points differential after eight rounds – plus seemingly the more favourable two-game run-in to the semi-finals of the coastal arch-rivals.

There is a case for saying the Sharks have the easier game both times.

Next Friday, for instance -- and even though they get a shorter turnaround time than Province do -- it might be argued that they are more likely to beat the ailing Blue Bulls at Loftus than WP are against the never-say-die Lions at Newlands a day later (Saturday, 14:00, conveniently ahead of the Springboks v All Blacks Test at Ellis Park).

Even more pertinently, the final weekend of round-robin play then sees the Sharks boast home advantage against the very Capetonians, which is a formidable aid all of its own.

So they’ve got the aces at present, even if this year’s sprightly competition has been renowned for edge-of-seat games more or less across the board.

What looks even more probable is that these two high-riders will, at the very least, stage home semis now.

Former Bok coach Nick Mallett suggested last week that the Sharks and Province were best sides of the six by a fair distance in 2013, and Friday’s results only stretched both outfits’ advantage in terms of that particular objective.

The third-placed Lions are a distant seven points behind the two pace-setters – a lot to make up with a mere two rounds remaining even if they do register a mild upset at WP’s home base.

A strange aspect of many of Province’s performances thus far, even as they stubbornly remain the lone unbeaten side, is that they are seldom finding best known rhythm and standards of consistency in matches yet do have a dogged ability to eke out victories – it is a factor that must stand them in pretty good stead for defence of their title.

Particularly hard to gauge is just how forceful their pack really is: they blow hot and cold in the possession stakes.

One week they find themselves glaringly back-pedalling, only to be read the riot act back on the training park and come out snorting the next.

Friday saw them often retreat into cowed ways; they could only muster some 35 percent of the ball in the first half against the Cheetahs, but improved to a fair enough degree after the break and can also always rely on people like twinkle-toed Cheslin Kolbe or Gio Aplon to suddenly produce influential tries out of nothing.

Meanwhile the Sharks – though their lineout stays a little ropey -- are fast rediscovering a slick brand of up-tempo, “total” rugby, aided by such advantages as the rising maturity of Fred Zeilinga at flyhalf and the early, slippery impact being made by new recruit SP Marais from the last line of defence.

The Cheetahs improved enough, in their desperately close shave against Province, to suggest that they should remain very much in the semis frame even if one of Griquas or the Bulls convincingly wins the remaining, basement-level battle of the current round on Saturday (Kimberley, 14:00) to cheekily announce fresh ambition for the last four.

Next weekend’s round nine games:

Friday: Blue Bulls v Sharks, Pretoria 19:10. Saturday: Griquas v Cheetahs, Kimberley 14:00; Western Province v Golden Lions, Cape Town 14:00.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

Read more on:    sharks  |  currie cup  |  fred zeilinga  |  rugby

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