Sharks in Loftus 'road test'

    2014-03-16 22:03

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town – They’ve made it four out of four at Kings Park ... now just how good will the 2014 Sharks prove to be away from the “Tank”?

    We should get an early idea when they visit enemy terrain for the first time in the shape of an appetising derby against three-time champions the Bulls at Loftus in next Saturday’s South African feature game (19:10 kickoff).

    This is a fairly rapid revisit of the first-round clash between the teams in Durban on the opening day of the SA conference in mid-February, when the Sharks won by a comfortable 31-16 margin.

    The Bulls, however, are in a much better space at present after successive, morale-boosting victories and then the luxury of a bye in the latest round and will not lack belief that a minor upset is quite possible.

    For the moment, the Sharks machine rumbles on, having equalled their best start to a Super Rugby season since the conversion to a conference system in 2011 – in that very year they also won their first four matches but then came cropper in their second overseas tour fixture against the Chiefs in Hamilton.

    So an unprecedented five-game winning streak is the carrot swinging in front of them as they prepare over the next few days for the Highveld-staged duel, possibly believing that altitude is less of a hindrance than the late-summer coastal humidity they have had to deal with for several weeks on the trot.

    The energy-sapping weather may be one plausible reason why Bismarck du Plessis’ side continue to show a “go to sleep” habit for 20 or 30 minutes in home matches.

    It was evident again soon after the start of the second half against the Reds on Saturday, although under Jake White’s shrewd tutelage the Sharks are clearly aware that Super Rugby is more ultra-marathon than plain old marathon these days: they know how to turn the screws when that really matters, and they ended good value for a 15-point triumph over the Queenslanders.

    There is still plenty of time for unexpected twists and turns, but it is just beginning to look as if the Sharks and Chiefs – in no particular order – will, indeed, be likeliest candidates as finalists in 2014.

    They are the only unbeaten sides left, now that the Waratahs have tasted first defeat in a nail-biting Aussie derby against the Brumbies in Canberra.

    The Sharks top the standings as they have played an extra fixture thus far, although the cushion is a handy five points over the Mooloo Men.

    Having shown their pedigree as 2012 and 2013 champions by the manner in which they dismantled the Stormers on Friday – the labouring Capetonians conceded five tries for the first time in some seven years – the Chiefs are now off on what is effectively a three-match tour abroad.

    They stop off in Perth en route to South Africa, to play a Western Force team who might have been considered relatively easy-beats for the New Zealanders only a couple of weeks back.

    But the Force are on a roll, following successive wins against the Rebels and a particularly impressive away one against the Highlanders on Saturday, so the Chiefs may well be stretched.

    Then the title-holders must play the Bulls at Loftus and Cheetahs in Bloemfontein, so how they fare over the next three weeks could be influential down the line in determining venues for semi-finals and the showpiece itself.

    Of course the down side to the Sharks’ nine-match starting stretch of games all on SA soil is that their own overseas travels come pretty late this season, so they’ll want to maintain a serious head of steam ahead of the May long-haul flight to play (in order) the Rebels, Brumbies, Crusaders and Blues.

    They will probably still be considered favourites to win at Loftus on Saturday, although a Bulls victory would be a particularly strong signal that they have genuine top-six aspirations as well.

    Even at this early stage, the chances of the basement-occupying Cheetahs and Stormers of advancing to the finals series are receding at a great rate of knots, although neutral South Africans will be heartened by the third victory on Saturday for Johan Ackermann’s heroic, unsung Lions.

    I rashly suggested at the start of the season that they might struggle to emulate the Kings’ maiden-season haul of three wins and a draw from their 16 fixtures ... just five games in, and they’ve already banked the three triumphs, thank you very much.

    Yes, I am again inclined to believe they will battle to beat the Reds at Ellis Park in their next assignment, but as long as I keep getting egg splattered on my face Lions fans won’t be objecting to that personal embarrassment at all, will they?

    Next round of fixtures (home teams first, all kickoffs SA time):

    Friday: Highlanders v Hurricanes, 08:35; Waratahs v Rebels, 10:40. Saturday: Blues v Cheetahs, 08:35; Brumbies v Stormers, 10:40; Force v Chiefs, 13:00; Lions v Reds, 17:05; Bulls v Sharks, 19:10. Bye: Crusaders.

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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