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
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
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
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
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