Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - Do the business in Bloemfontein
on Saturday night ... then warm up the Sunday morning coffee smartly and become
temporary Highlanders enthusiasts for 80 minutes.
Those ought to be key items on the Sharks’
to-do list this weekend as Super Rugby 2014 enters its penultimate round of
Director of rugby Jake White will be aware
of the potential hazard of putting the cart before the horse, and drum into his
charges that victory against the Cheetahs in a domestic derby is very much the
But if they manage that, their attention
will undoubtedly turn pretty smartly to a Sunday morning cracker (in SA
time-zone terms, at 08:05) between the log-leading Waratahs and New
Zealand-based playoffs challengers the Highlanders in Sydney.
Coming off a run of five victories in
succession at a timely part of the season, the ‘Tahs will undoubtedly be deemed
favourites to bank another win – one that would virtually guarantee them a home
semi-final at the very least even with the final round of games yet to
Just winning, without a bonus point, would
carry the Waratahs to 52 points; keep in mind that the very maximum the
third-placed Crusaders and Highlanders (in fourth) can get to from here is that
figure if they earn 10 points from their two respective remaining fixtures – and
only one can, as they play each other in the final round.
A Waratahs victory with the four-try cherry
on top? That absolutely assures the blue-jerseyed Aussies of a Sydney semi.
Of course the Sharks, three points behind
the NSW pace-setters, don’t exactly want either of the two NZ sides to prosper
over the next two weekends either, but it would be a better situation than the
‘Tahs continuing on their all-conquering path as it could open the door anew to
the Durban side ending first and having an enticing crack at a home showpiece.
So can the Dunedin team do the Sharks a
It is a tall order, given that the Waratahs
have not yet lost at home in 2014 and a slip-up at Allianz Stadium now, in
their closing home game, would be deemed near-disastrous for them.
But what the Sharks probably need is for
the Highlanders, who enter the game on the back of a nail-biting triumph over
fading defending champions the Chiefs, to muster the kind of “on the road”
spirit that characterised their remarkable, Malakai Fekitoa-inspired 34-18
thumping of the very Sharks in Durban and by a slightly galling four tries to
nil in late April.
It proved that anything is possible for a
side who palpably underperformed in 2013, ending 14th overall and
with just three wins to their credit – already the Highlanders have eight this
They have several dangerous game-breakers
in their midst.
If they are not to be hauled in from their
key top-two berths right now, it really comes down to a battle of nerves between
the Waratahs and Sharks for table-topping supremacy.
Neither has the easiest of run-ins, with
the Sharks particularly disadvantaged by both remaining games being away SA
derbies and perhaps the battle against coastal enemies the Stormers – with due
respect to this week’s tricky opponents – the more perilous banana-peel type of
Neither opponent will play rollover: the
Cheetahs have slipped to bottom of both the conference and overall log, and
this after making the playoffs in 2013, and will want a strong finish to try to
improve that disappointing status.
Meanwhile the Stormers still have an
outside chance of finishing conference runners-up, despite their various woes
this year, provided that they see off the Bulls at Newlands on Saturday to
close the gap between the two significantly ahead of the final ordinary-season
As for the Waratahs, once they have faced
the Highlanders’ challenge, they still have to travel to Brisbane to play the
Reds, another traditionally strong outfit in modern times who have
underperformed this season but demonstrated by thrashing the Rebels in
Melbourne last time out that they’re not going to simply drift into lethargic
Waratahs v Sharks in the final straight:
who wants top spot more?
our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing