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    Sharks must keep foot on pedal

    2016-05-07 22:24

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town – The Sharks have greatly rejuvenated their quest to make the Vodacom Super Rugby quarter-finals cut, but could still do with a productive next fortnight if that challenge is to be healthily sustained.

    Saturday’s murderously-committed, often inspiring 32-15 victory over the Hurricanes at Kings Park probably counted among the three most praiseworthy South African triumphs over strong overseas opposition of the season – right up there with the Lions’ 36-32 upsetting of the Chiefs in Hamilton and the Stormers’ astute 31-11 dismantling of the Brumbies at Newlands.

    The game, initially expected to be played in heavy rain, was instead contested in dry, reasonably firm conditions and seemed agonisingly in the balance (8-8) at the interval, particularly considering that it was the Sharks and not their New Zealand guests who had come off a long-haul flight just a few days earlier.

    But any fears that Tendai Mtawarira and company might fade were quickly dispelled as they produced an irresistible, bludgeoning third quarter to put the game to bed with unexpected ease.

    They were right in the mix for a bonus point as well towards the end, but it was taken away as a very rare soft moment on defence in the 73rd minute saw James Marshall slip in to make the final count 4-2 in the try department.

    Still, the Sharks need not be too hard on themselves: if you’d offered them the basic win against such quality foes ahead of the clash, given their prior three-match exertions in New Zealand itself, they would probably have bitten your hand off for it.

    What the four log points did was narrow the gap in Africa Conference 2 to one point between the front-running Lions (27 from nine matches) and next best-placed Sharks (26 from one extra fixture).

    It still suggests that Johan Ackermann’s charges, who were inactive this weekend, hold the whip hand in the group but they will also be looking over their shoulders with increased consternation – remember that the Sharks swatted off the very team which had thrashed the Jo’burgers 50-17 a week earlier.

    The Sharks’ schedule is so punishing this year that resting on their laurels is a constantly elusive luxury – it’s no different at this point, as their next task this Saturday is a Buenos Aires meeting with the Jaguares (who will be fresh off their own bye and harbouring vivid memories of putting 73 points on the Kings).

    Having flown some 12,000km back home across the Indian Ocean so recently from Australasia, they must now brace for another 8,000km or so the other way to Argentina.

    Perhaps there will be the temptation in director of rugby Gary Gold’s mind to do some rotation of harder-pressed personnel of late against the moderate Jaguares, but he will also be well aware of the potential pitfalls of showing “disrespect” in that manner to the unpredictable South Americans.

    My fancy is that he will still aim to field a largely A-team against them, to only enhance the likelihood of a precious victory, and then think more toward shaking the selection bag if necessary when they return home to face weakest compatriots the Kings in Durban – a team they trounced 43-8 in Port Elizabeth back in round one.

    Besides, the Sharks are currently getting excellent value off their bench, as evidenced again in the ‘Canes match when the likes of Pat Lambie, Chiliboy Ralepelle, Jean Deysel and Hyron Andrews entered the second-half fray with relish to match those they replaced.

    Gold’s main head-scratcher is clearly going to be the pleasant Garth April v Lambie debate at flyhalf; the infinitely less experienced April was constructive and confident once again in his 53 minutes against the Hurricanes, before Springbok Lambie, just back from long-term injury, fitted in as though he’d never been away.

    Lambie, remember, was also chosen as the designated premier Sharks captain before the campaign started, so as soon as he is deemed ready to start he will presumably also lead them out.

    Once they have got past the Jaguares and Kings contests, the Sharks enter a protracted, merciful break for a bye and then the June Test window, and they simply have to keep their eyes firmly on the ball until then if they are to keep up their playoffs bid.

    There is always still the possibility of the third quarter-finals ticket (an away match) for best South African side outside the winning places in the two Africa conferences, but if they wish to top their group and bank a home tie, these are the remaining Sharks obligations along that road: Jaguares (a), Kings (h), Lions (a), Cheetahs (h), Sunwolves (h).

    The Lions’ remaining six dates are: Blues (h), Jaguares (h), Bulls (a), Sharks (h), Kings (h) and Jaguares (a).

    *All of next weekend’s fixtures (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):

    Friday: Highlanders v Crusaders, 09:35; Rebels v Brumbies, 11:45. Saturday: Hurricanes v Reds, 09:35; Waratahs v Bulls, 11:45; Sunwolves v Stormers, 13:55; Cheetahs v Kings, 17:05; Lions v Blues, 19:15; Jaguares v Sharks, 22:40. Byes: Chiefs, Force.

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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    Fixtures

    Saturday, 17 February 2018
    • Stormers v Jaguares, Cape Town 15:05
    • Lions v Sharks, Emirates Airlines Park 17:15
    Friday, 23 February 2018
    • Highlanders v Blues, 08:35
    • Rebels v Reds, AAMI Park 10:45
    Saturday, 24 February 2018
    • Sunwolves v Brumbies, Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium 06:15
    • Crusaders v Chiefs, 08:35
    • Waratahs v Stormers, Allianz Stadium 10:45
    • Lions v Jaguares, Emirates Airlines Park 15:05
    • Bulls v Hurricanes, Loftus Versfeld 17:15

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