Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – The Sharks are horribly close to a freefall phenomenon
Friday’s depressing 48-15 Super Rugby surrender to the
Highlanders in their tour opener in Dunedin leaves the supposedly “major” South
African franchise with seven defeats from 11 games; anonymity beckons, rather
Bear in mind that last season they won the local conference,
only losing five of their 16 ordinary-season fixtures – they have already
comfortably exceeded that tally with five matches to go and three of them still
to negotiate in foreign climes.
Mathematically, you could advance an argument that they
aren’t quite buried in playoffs terms yet.
If you were to use last year’s model as a yardstick, 42
points was the minimum requirement to make the finals series cut: the Sharks
have precisely half that tally (21).
But with a maximum of 25 points left for them to play for on
a shrinking roster, can you possibly see the Sharks suddenly exploding into a
surge of winning form and banking a further 21 or thereabouts?
There is desperately little further margin for error, and
the claw-back scenario looks even less feasible when you consider that next
week the men from Durban must visit the Hurricanes, pace-setters for so much of
the current campaign.
Most of us, and even with some staunch Sharks fans
presumably on board, will already have come pretty firmly to the conclusion
that they are also-rans.
By conceding seven tries to give the Highlanders an easy
five-point full house, the tourists also did few favours to more ambitious compatriots
like the Stormers and Bulls, only adding to the likelihood that at least three
New Zealand outfits will be pressing very strongly for top-six finishes.
In short, they looked a rag-tag bunch for most of the
contest, making some juvenile errors, displaying lack of urgency and zest at
times and having their first-time defensive shape reduced to disorganised
They also conceded the
ball too easily after doing initial hard yards to secure it, which played right
into the majestic, counter-sniping hands of their foes.
As former All Blacks coach John Mitchell observed even at
halftime in the SuperSport studio: “If there’s a better (attacking) team from
turnover ball than the Highlanders I’ve yet to see it.”
He also made the point that for the current Sharks team to
be successful -- with their lopsided focus on physicality to the detriment of
flair – they “need to be in the last 30 metres of the field to bring out their
Unfortunately they were unable to consistently enough command
sufficient quality real estate for that to happen, rather nullifying the
hard-driving potential of Willem Alberts, Tendai Mtawarira and the like.
Whenever it did seem they might be building something half-promising
on attack, they would be thwarted by infuriating handling errors under little
pressure, with captain and second-rower Marco Wentzel – more excusable, perhaps
– and the midfield pair of Andre Esterhuizen and JP Pietersen glaring culprits
on specific occasions.
And when TV commentator Tony Johnson, certainly not the most
one-eyed of Kiwis, observed in a different passage of play that “once again
Esterhuizen’s first instinct is to run into a defender” he could have been
talking of several other Sharks backs’ inability to either create or exploit
If there were positives to bank for the under-the-weather Sharks,
promising lock beanpole Stephan Lewies – albeit showing rust that translated
into the odd gaffe -- got through an industrious, spirited 70-minute shift in
his first start of the season after injury.
Especially in the first half, the back-from-disgrace
Bismarck du Plessis, freed of the cares of captaincy, showed signs of restoring
his lofty playing standards of old.
The gnarly Bok stole a couple of balls from under the
Highlanders’ noses, and when he had the ball tucked under an arm he used the
other effectively at times to execute some of his famed hand-offs – happily of
the strictly legal kind.
With their playoffs hopes well nigh dashed, hopefully Gary
Gold and company will use the next few games -- even as they feel the effects
of certain absent, key personnel – to try to introduce some new elements to the
Sharks’ too one-dimensional playing style.
At the moment, they still look a good bunch to call on only
if you need them to push-start your temperamental bakkie ...
*Follow our chief
writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing