Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - The Sharks, lowest-ranked
participants in the finals series, will have to play out of their skins for
three successive weekends if they are to earn a maiden Super Rugby title.
That might sound a pretty obvious statement... doesn't roughly the same apply to all eight sides as the quarter-finals are
contested this weekend, and then the heat naturally cranks up even further?
Well, not quite.
Several of the knockout-qualifying New Zealand
outfits, in particular, have often looked good enough to dispose of lesser foes
contemptuously even while being off their known best levels of performance or
fielding weakened, rotation-conscious combinations.
It is why the tough NZ conference stays
resolutely the most convincing one, and frankly by a bit of a landslide.
The Sharks are four-time finalists between
1996 and 2012, without ever managing to get their name engraved on the trophy
and they will be as desperate as any side to break that duck - especially bearing
in mind that Bryan Habana heartbreak, after the infamously too-faint siren, of
the 2007 showpiece in Durban against the Bulls.
But whether they have the required arsenal
to go all the way exactly a decade later is another matter, and not only
because their QF opponents in Johannesburg on Saturday (kick-off at 14:30) will be
table-topping compatriots the Lions, who have already knocked them over twice
To be perfectly blunt (and maybe that is an
apt word?), there has just not been enough collective evidence from ordinary
season to suggest the Kings Park-based team - played 15, won nine, and in a
year where they skirted the NZ teams - can claim the title.
In fact, there is a case for saying they
have regressed slightly on last year's effort, when they also scuttled into the
playoffs in eighth overall, again with nine victories, but naturally also had
the trickier roster then.
A common hallmark in both 2016 (when the
Sharks quite literally "blew out" of the last eight 41-0 in a violent windstorm
in Wellington) and 2017 has been their low try concession rate, but also glaring
inability to routinely cross the whitewash themselves, which may very well be
their main impediment to a genuine title charge.
Little has changed, although in the
slightly under-appreciated Gary Gold's swansong season as chief strategist the
Sharks got 40 tries in ordinary season to the 36 this time, and leaked fewer,
too... 30, compared to 33 this time.
Only managing one bonus point for three-try
supremacy all season (against the humble Sunwolves in Singapore, a 38-17 win),
the Sharks' closing tally of 36 dot-downs this year is better only than the
basement Melbourne Rebels (23) - even the Sunwolves registered 40, although
admittedly their "tries against" was real train-smash stuff at 96.
Of course you have to credit Robert du
Preez and his immediate lieutenants for the shut-the-gate culture the Sharks
have certainly retained when it comes to try concession this year; only the
Lions of domestic rivals in the competition have leaked fewer (26) and most of
the others quite considerably more.
But they do seem to find it a struggle,
despite their directness and physical relish, to get necessary width and
devilish running angles to their attack.
They are difficult, bruising foes when the
mood grabs them, make no mistake.
Yet the Sharks, like it or not, have a
stubbornly long-time reputation as "bashers" - admittedly there have been times
when it has not been justified - and I have not seen enough evidence in 2017 to
suggest that the current crop have the more multi-skilled attributes or volume
of individual cutting-edge customers required to march all the way.
Determinedly, passionately industrial and
uncompromising is their likeliest passport to the Super Rugby title.
And for that very reason it is also a long
our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing