Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – JP Pietersen is right: the Super Rugby season
has a long way to go, and there have been some oddball results in the early
rounds ... enough to suggest that certain labouring big guns can still find a
The experienced Springbok utility back was clearly trying to
put the inevitable positive spin this week on the Sharks’ current predicament
-- he was hardly going to say: “You know, we’re just not up to it; we’ve
already given up the ghost.”
But he will also know all too well that such bullish talk
will take on a particularly hollow tone if the Durban-based outfit, seemingly
so competitive on paper, tumble to a horrendous one-from-five record if they
lose again this weekend when the Cheetahs stand in their way in Bloemfontein
Past experience tells all vigilant Super Rugby monitors that
a 20 percent win record after five rounds mostly tends not to be a ticket,
further down the drag, to playoffs status – and keep in mind the widely-touted
pre-season belief that the Sharks would be fierce contenders both for the SA
conference mantle and as possible home semi-finalists.
A bit of minor mathematics from last season, for instance,
reveals much about the grim uphill battle that would face Bismarck du Plessis
and company if they were to go down at Free State Stadium.
Given that one of the sides finishing on eight wins from
ordinary season in 2014, the currently high-flying Hurricanes, didn’t find that
tally quite enough to make the six-team finals series cut, let’s set the safety
bar at nine for qualification: it would leave the Sharks requiring a major
turnaround that would involve eight wins from 11 remaining ordinary-roster
fixtures to sneak even a low-rank playoffs ticket.
Among those 11 matches, of course, would be their
still-awaited four-game overseas tour obligation, with all the associated
hazards for South African teams lugging their way through Australasia.
It is true that the Sharks performed admirably abroad under
Jake White’s rather short-lived tutelage last season, earning a dream – by SA
standards – three victories, against the Rebels, Crusaders (that 14-man show of
valour) and Blues, and losing only to the Brumbies.
But they were also in the midst of a rather stronger winning
habit than they presently are in 2015, with self-confidence levels likely to
have been more buoyant than will be the case at this point.
When the Sharks finally embark on their foreign challenge
this time -- still six games up the road which may be no bad thing under
present circumstances – the programme looks a potentially tougher one:
Highlanders, Hurricanes, defending champions the Waratahs, and the Reds in that
“Bankers” from that list in victory terms look reasonably
hard to find, even if the Reds have been no great shakes thus far and are
bottom of the Aussie conference.
In short, then, there is seriously little room for further
slip-ups by the Sharks, either in the several weeks before or during the venture
to New Zealand and Australia.
The longer their early-season slumber goes on, the massively
less likely their playoffs candidacy will be at the business end.
A comparison between where the conference-winning Sharks
were last season to now after four matches makes alarming reading for their
fans: they had bagged 18 points out of a possible 20 then, with wins over the
Bulls (31-16), Hurricanes (27-9), Lions (37-23) and Reds (35-20) – admittedly
all at Kings Park – whereas this time they sport only six points from 20, a gaping
deficit of 12 on last season.
So it seems a non-negotiable that they restore some
semblance of stability and title hope by beating the Cheetahs, who are punching
gamely above their weight already, on Saturday.
The Sharks need to confirm they have rightful claims to
status as heavyweights. And quickly ...
All remaining Sharks
fixtures in ordinary season: Cheetahs (a), Chiefs (h), Force (h), Crusaders
(h), Lions (a), Bulls (h), Highlanders (a), Hurricanes (a), Waratahs (a), Reds
(a), Rebels (h), Stormers (h).
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