Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – The Sharks hardly warrant blame if they’re
finding it hard to predict the mindset of the Brumbies, Saturday’s foes in a
top-of-the-table Super Rugby clash at Canberra Stadium (11:40 SA time).
Will the Australian outfit be dangerously fired-up,
considering the unexpectedly large 40-20 reverse they suffered to the Crusaders
in Christchurch last time out?
Or has that result polluted some genuine, untimely insecurity
into the Brumbies’ ranks, which the Sharks – at least victorious against the
Rebels in their own most recent game, however imperfect it was -- will be able
to prey on?
Shrewd Sharks mastermind Jake White, whose own return to the
home of his former franchise adds a tangible splash of chilli paste to the
occasion, is likely to prime his men for both possibilities.
Certainly it is tempting to think that the Brumbies have
experienced a bit of a correction because, at least temporarily, any team
suffering a 20-point whipping is sure to have its title aspirations downgraded a
notch or so in the minds of many observers.
The loss was their heaviest on paper since their problematic
first season of the conference system in 2011, when the Brumbies ended an
unacceptable – by their often lofty standards – 13th overall and
some defeats included a 52-10 thrashing by the very same Crusaders in Nelson (a
game remembered for Sean Maitland’s four personal tries among six for the
‘Saders) and later a 41-7 derby submission to the Waratahs in Sydney.
Then again, the latest setback against the Crusaders was
perhaps a tad deceptive: the try count last weekend was only 3-2 in favour of
the home side and much of the daylight on the board was caused by Colin Slade’s
metronomic seven penalty goals off the tee.
If it is confusing to work out what emotional state the
Brumbies will be on Saturday, then recent history between the teams also sheds
no special light on what to expect this time.
That is due to the fact that the Australian Capital
Territory outfit, then with White calling the shots from their booth and later
to end the tournament losing finalists, comfortably saw off the Sharks 29-10 in
Durban, whilst a year earlier the Durban-based side prevailed 29-26 in the last
Canberra meeting between them.
What’s more, the Sharks’ productive day then included the
four-try bonus point, with utility back Riaan Viljoen (now contracted to the
NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes in Japan) crossing twice and Lwazi Mvovo and Willem
Alberts – both essential elements of the current mix – also registering tries.
So they don’t have to hold any special historical fears
about the Canberra challenge: it is perhaps only when they shift to
Christchurch a couple of days later that they will be reminded of their
bankruptcy in success terms against those opponents in their own den.
Overall, the Sharks hold a 2-1 edge in wins over the
Brumbies since the 2011 expansion of Super Rugby.
This game is a real “eight-point swing” type of affair,
given that the winner, whichever way the clash goes, will rightfully feel that
perhaps they’ve done critical yards in teeing up a superior finish on the
overall table when ordinary season ends.
Should the Sharks pull it off, for example, and bank four
log points without reply, they’d open up a formidable nine-point cushion over
But if the home team take the spoils, they’ll be back within
a very whisker of the Sharks at the top and strongly believing that they can
overhaul them, bearing in mind that the Crusaders and Blues across the “ditch”
should be obstacles just as tough for the Sharks as their tour advances.
Who are the real Brumbies? The team who crashed 40-20 in
Christchurch? Or the men who, by notable contrast, saw off defending champions
the Chiefs 41-23 in their last home fixture just a week before?
Oh, and just how good are the 2014 Sharks, really? Have they
been deceptively fattened by a hugely favourable early-part-of-season roster?
So much uncertainty, so many questions ... the mist may only
clear after the 80-odd minutes on Saturday.
*Follow our chief
writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing