Can NZ side aid Sharks’ push?

    2014-07-02 14:09

    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 ordinary-season play.

    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 main target.

    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 negotiate.

    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 favour?

    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 year!

    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 occasion.

    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 weekend.

    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 sleep.

    Waratahs v Sharks in the final straight: who wants top spot more?

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

    Read More On:  sharks super 15 durban rugby

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