Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – In the unlikely event of any complacency having taken root, the Super Rugby overall table-topping Sharks would do well to recall the “game four” trap they fell haplessly into last season.
The Durban-based franchise, albeit without nearly the same, genuinely title-hungry buzz that has gripped the local rugby public this year, achieved in 2013 what they have managed thus far in the latest campaign – three wins from their first trio of fixtures.
The only difference last year was that the Sharks could not manage a bonus point in any of those clashes, so they were two points down on their 14-strong haul of log points out of a possible 15 this time.
Nor was there anything like the dynamism that has generally marked their play in the current season, as they saw off the Cheetahs 29-22, Stormers 12-6 (a particularly poor-quality derby) and rookie Kings 21-12 in that order.
So a suspicion remained, despite their winning start, that they weren’t very compelling candidates for that elusive first Super Rugby crown for the Kings Park cabinet – and it was confirmed in their fourth game when Jake White brought his resurgent Brumbies to town and the Sharks hit the deck with a nasty bump, losing 29-10.
They were humbled 4-1 in try-scoring terms and the clash signalled the start, in many ways, of their regression to a fourth-placed finish in the SA conference and disappointing eighth overall.
Is it a bad omen, then, that game four of 2014 also sees Australian opponents visiting the KwaZulu-Natal coast, in the shape of the Reds?
Hopefully not, if you are SA-inclined ... and not least because White has since switched camps from the Brumbies to the Sharks and is masterminding their promisingly intense, focused push for major honours in 2014 after taking the Brumbies all the way to the 2013 final.
Under White’s tutelage, the Sharks have made their most productive three-game start, in points terms, to any campaign for them since the Super 14 became the greatly revamped Super Rugby, with its conference system, in 2011.
In 2012 they had gone onto the back foot immediately by losing 18-13 to the Bulls at Loftus first up, whilst in 2011 they also won their first three matches on the trot (Cheetahs and Blues at home, Force away) but only got one four-try bonus point, from the last-named encounter in Perth when they prevailed 39-12.
That year the Sharks also went on to win their fourth game, it must be noted, as they edged the Rebels 34-32 in Melbourne, before the sequence was snapped as the Chiefs then won 15-9 in Hamilton.
Certainly the Sharks will be installed as favourites to go four from four once more on Saturday (17:05 kickoff), particularly as the Reds come to South Africa knowing that they have lost all of their last four visits to our soil: to the Stormers and Cheetahs in 2013 and Bulls and Sharks in 2012.
Also aiding the Sharks’ cause is knowledge that Durban has been a lean hunting ground for the Queenslanders since as far back as 2004 when they last recorded a triumph there.
That game was infamous for being one of the sloppiest, most boring games of Super Rugby (then Super 12) on record – both teams were already pretty much also-runs at the time, and the Reds duly edged in 6-5 via two Elton Flatley penalties to an unconverted try by the Sharks’ now Ireland-based front-ranker BJ Botha.
It will be a major surprise if the latest encounter is nearly as dull, given that both outfits are much more ambitious a decade on and occupy two of the top three positions in the “tries for” column at present – the Sharks have registered 10 (same as the Waratahs) and the Reds nine.
We are also just beginning to reach that stage of the late summer when the humidity level becomes a bit more bearable on the KZN coast and more consistently up-tempo rugby is possible.
The Sharks are combining powerful, decisive forward play – except perhaps for the scrums, where an inexperienced Lions front row gave their own much-capped Springbok trio a few things to think about last weekend – with decent backline lustre when they spin the ball through hands.
They boast some of the “form” attackers in the competition with the likes of Paul Jordaan and Lwazi Mvovo excelling out wide and Frans Steyn pulling clever strings from closer in, whether it be at inside centre or flyhalf.
The luxury of being able to assess whether JP Pietersen, that long-striding known game-breaker, is ready to fit straight back into the starting XV after his sojourn in Japan, is another string to their pre-game bow.
The Reds will warrant respect, but at the same time it is hard to envisage another Brumbies-type game four fiasco for the Sharks on this occasion ... isn’t it?
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