Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Played 11, lost 11 ... that is now the putrid record of South African teams abroad in Super Rugby 2014.
It is for that very reason, perhaps, that Sharks enthusiasts should breathe a sigh of relief that Jake White’s charges extended their lead at the top of the overall standings on an Easter weekend marked by a largely wretched calibre of rugby in the SA conference.
Their humdrum, low-on-verve home victory over the Cheetahs – now pushed into the wooden spoon position among the 15 teams – ensured that the Durban-based outfit moved six points clear of nearest rivals the Brumbies and Chiefs.
That is a tidy state of affairs as things stand, but it would suddenly take on a much more precarious look if their Australasian leg turns into the sort of winless nightmare already experience by the Cheetahs and Stormers, and with the Bulls in grave danger of following suit unless they knock over the Western Force in their tour finisher in Perth next weekend.
The Sharks limped rather than waltzed to their latest triumph, although give them their due: when the game was teetering on a knife edge at one stage in the second half, they did produce a timely fuel-injected spell to take an upset out of the equation – the mark of a good side, and one appreciating that this gruelling competition is more marathon than sprint.
Speaking of limping, it will have been disconcerting for Sharks fans to witness key backline physical presence and string-puller Frans Steyn hobbling noticeably after taking a couple of long-range place-kicks – SuperSport commentator and former Springbok flyhalf Joel Stransky said he was apparently struggling with two bad knees at present.
The observation came not too long after cameras at Kings Park had shown a formidably long row of injured Sharks players, all in identical attire, soaking in the action at the venue from the sidelines.
Some are expected to reinforce a perhaps slightly mentally jaded squad shortly, though others like Pat Lambie and Pieter-Steph du Toit, of course, are longer-term absentees.
The Sharks have an unforgiving six-day turnaround to their next fixture, another home one against the Highlanders on Friday night ... and yes, it is another “must win” affair because the four-game overseas roster begins straight afterwards.
Considering the dubious and inconsistent quality of the fare being dished out by SA teams in general this season, it is quite hard to envisage even Bismarck du Plessis’s table-toppers getting more than, say, a two-victories tally out of their travels.
So the Sharks have to somehow freshen up anew to subdue the New Zealand south islanders, who may have come off a long-haul flight but did have the advantage of a bye in the latest round: the Highlanders should be a pretty fired-up bunch as they are also very much in the playoffs mix as they lie eighth, only two slots shy of the qualifying positions and with a game in hand over a couple of higher-placed foes.
If the domestic conference, so far the ropiest of the three collectively, is to retain some semblance of competitiveness at the top end, it will probably need the Sharks to implode badly abroad: their lead over the second-placed Bulls (an ailing ninth overall) is now a whopping 12 points – and from one fewer match.
A more likely immediate priority for the Bulls is simply to reignite their quest to make the finals series after a run of four matches without a win, including three in foreign climes.
The latest setback against the Waratahs (19-12 in Sydney) did come with another losing bonus point; they’ve narrowly banked one each time on tour.
But the three-time past champions, still looking so vulnerable at the breakdown and absolutely crying out for a true open-side flanker, must fiercely target victory against the Force because anything but that outcome will hugely enhance the likelihood that only the Sharks will carry the South African baton into the playoffs.
There is still time for plenty of moving and shaking in ordinary season, but as things stand the country – audaciously seeking a sixth franchise from 2016 – may well have four also-rans very shortly.
There were seeds of regeneration from the Stormers in their fast-paced first-half performance of a welcome derby triumph over the Lions at Newlands, but then the second 40 minutes produced an error-riddled snorefest from both sides.
Psst, want to know the only SA-hosted fixture on Saturday? It’s the 15th-placed Cheetahs hosting the 14th-placed Stormers in the 17:05 primetime “showpiece”.
It might not be the worst day to paint that wall you’ve been promising to do for weeks ...
*Next weekend’s fixtures (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):
Friday, April 25
Blues v Waratahs - 07:35
Brumbies v Chiefs - 09:40
Sharks v Highlanders - 19:10
Saturday, April 26
Hurricanes v Reds - 09:35
Force v Bulls - 11:40
Cheetahs v Stormers - 17:05
Lions, Crusaders, Rebels
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing