Sharks unity pivotal in Perth
Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – There was some irony in the manner in which the Sharks snapped a five-match losing streak by beating the Force 23-13 in Perth on Friday.
Make no mistake, it made grim Super Rugby watching a lot of the time, as a side clearly tired and low on both rhythm and continuity of personnel through injuries laboured to overcome the fairly traditional strugglers from Western Australia.
But they did somehow summon deeply-stored reserves of spirit to get past the post, producing their greatest spells of urgency on both attack and defence in the last quarter to turn the essential screws for this success.
That is ordinarily, and quite naturally, so often considered the stage of ding-dong tussles where touring South African teams, almost unavoidably with one foot effectively planted at international departures check-in, are most vulnerable to capitulation.
Instead the Sharks hung commendably tough ... and there were scenes of particularly animated delight in their ranks at the final whistle.
If this was a team in the throes of some sort of crisis of cultural cliques and the like, as reported in a newspaper earlier in the week, then it was a notably strange exhibition of that disharmony, whatever the shortcomings still apparent in the quality of the Durban-based side’s play.
Captain Keegan Daniel had been at the centre of the controversy, before his issuing of a firm statement of protest, and as much as he was seldom absent from the coalface personally – including crashing over for the Sharks’ first try – troops around him like Marcell Coetzee, Riaan Viljoen, Kyle Cooper and fiery impact substitute Pieter-Steph du Toit appeared only too happy to respond to his rallying cries.
Whether the Sharks have done enough, in earning their first triumph since the Crusaders on April 5, to keep alive their playoff hopes remains to be seen: it still seems a very tall order for them to crack the top six.
Yet a glance at the SA conference table – they lie third -- possibly gives them greater cause for a flicker of optimism than the overall one, where they remain a pretty lowly 10th.
They are eight points behind the Bulls -- who admittedly go into a “should-win” game against the Highlanders at Loftus on Saturday evening (17:05) – having currently played two games more, but they also have four bye points yet to bank, a situation which Pierre Spies’s men can no longer take comfort from.
The Sharks will also be acutely aware that they have both fixtures against the Bulls yet to navigate, the first being at the Shark Tank next Saturday night.
On present form you would have to consider it unlikely that they will knock over their strong domestic rivals twice (perhaps not even once?), but if they were to achieve that notable double, the cat could be set among the pigeons in the conference.
It is also worth noting that if there is still some fierce jockeying going on for positions of influence as we go into the last day of ordinary-season action on July 13, the Sharks are handily at home to the Kings while the Bulls must travel to Newlands to play the Stormers.
The last-named side fell off the playoffs wagon themselves by slipping to a controversial defeat to another generally unsung Aussie outfit, the Rebels, on Friday.
Much more used to being among the high-riders for three seasons on the trot before this one, it will be interesting to see how the Stormers respond to being almost certainly also-rans for the rest of their programme.
One thing is certain, though: mention of the word “Bulls” in the Cape seldom fails to get the juices of the home team and their supporters flowing, regardless of how much or little is at stake for the clash.
Everyone in the Sharks camp will be under no illusions that they need to lift their game enormously if they are to claim a string of bigger scalps than the Force towards the tournament’s end.
But a scrappy, overdue win like this one can also serve as a surprising catalyst for dramatic improvement, can’t it?Remaining Sharks fixtures: Bulls (h), bye, Blues (h), Bulls (a), Kings (h).*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing