Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Are
you one of those South Africans simply dead keen for a first Super Rugby title
success on these shores since 2010, and far from obsessed about who actually
breaks the eight-year duck?
If so, then
this weekend may well go a long way to clearing any confusion in your mind
about which basket to best place your eggs in, regarding that elusive main
desperately-needed, tour-ending victory by the Lions over the Highlanders in
Dunedin on Saturday would logically and pretty dramatically rekindle
expectation that - for a third year in a row - the side from Johannesburg will
again boss the SA landscape after ordinary season and, by extension, have the
best stab at going all the way.
If they can
overcome the Otago hurdle - and it is a fairly big if, as they increasingly yearn
for home comforts on the expedition - then they will consolidate their spot at
the top of the conference quite nicely, showing seven wins from 12 matches and
four to go.
they do have a puncher’s chance: the Highlanders are flying back to the clash
from their own visit to South Africa, albeit that NZ teams area advantaged by
their time across the Indian Ocean usually being limited to only two matches at
a time, at most.
Bruin’s troops, by prevailing, would also be right back in with a particularly
strong shout at finishing at least second overall, based on the tournament’s
questionable structure, and thus pipping an Australian side to rights to a
possible home semi-final.
But what if
the Lions slip for a third time in four on this Australasian trek (bookies will
probably have that as the favoured outcome) and, back home, the reinvigorated
Sharks see off the Bulls in Saturday’s Loftus derby? (For what it’s worth, that
is a result I am cautiously beginning to fancy.)
scenario would put the Sharks, currently eight points behind with a match in
hand, within one victory of levelling with or overtaking the Lions … and still
with that extra fixture in their piggybank.
there’s the additional satisfaction of Robert du Preez’s charges knowing that
the second derby against the very Lions takes place at Kings Park on June 30.
be an absolute ripper if both are indeed vying for top-dog status by then,
although some consideration must still be made for the fact that all of the
illuminatingly in-form Jaguares, plus the Stormers and Bulls, certainly aren’t
out of the running to crash that party. The SA conference is a fair old logjam.
would also be buoyed, for that key revenge opportunity in late June, by the
knowledge that they ran the Lions close (26-19) at Emirates Airline Park right
back in round one on February 17.
weekend, and that slick, ruthless 38-12 dismantling of the Highlanders, you’d
have had reason to accuse me of too many shots of late-autumn muscadel for
daring to suggest that the too often near-awful Sharks possibly represented
SA’s premier hope of landing the 2018 overall crown.
But is it
possible that the coastal side have finally twigged, at an advanced stage of
the campaign, as to just how effective they can be when the right mindset and
energy levels grab them?
they probably reached a nadir in their lethargy a few weeks ago, on April 14,
against the very same opponents they square up to at Loftus on Saturday, losing
by a humiliating 30-point margin at home.
makes them seem a wise bet to overturn that result dramatically on the
Highveld, but if they play with even 80 percent of the gusto they demonstrated
last Saturday, it might well be enough to nose out John Mitchell’s talented but
how a raft of New Zealand sides still seem the major obstacles – and then some
– to the silverware, it is significant that the Sharks have fared well better
than the Lions in bilateral meetings so far this season.
Lions are currently nought from three (home reverses to the Blues and
Crusaders, away loss to the Hurricanes last weekend), the Sharks so desperately
nearly stand, by contrast, with a 100 percent record against NZ foes.
they know how the Hurricanes, at home, were able to come from two scores down
late on to cruelly steal the spoils 38-37, after the Durbanites had rattled
them to their very foundations, but otherwise it’s been pretty blissful
sailing: a 63-40 walloping of the Blues in Auckland and then last weekend’s
rousing slaughter of the Highlanders.
Lions, generally, have stuck to their admirable enough bid to outfox NZ teams
at their own extrovert games, the Sharks have largely preferred faith in
time-honoured South African principles of “smash … then penetrate”.
they have a physical, abrasive style which, at best and most focussed, has the
ability to unnerve the New Zealanders, and gradually has the potential to lead
to some crowd-pleasing exploits in wider areas of the park as well.
materials for this bruising, intense approach are available to them both in the
engine room and, almost as importantly, behind it, where men like flyhalf Rob
du Preez, inside centre Andre Esterhuizen and now fast-emerging wing S’bu Nkosi
are far from shrinking violets in contact situations and Lukhanyo Am, at No 13,
is a proper terrier over the ball.
Put it this
way: if you had to hastily cart one of the Lions or Sharks onto a plane later today
to be really competitive in a final in the Land of the Long White Cloud, it
would be seriously tempting to opt for the latter.
concede this much: a Lions win in New Zealand at the weekend, and the Sharks
simply revisiting the dark side of their split personality in Pretoria … well,
then the answer to which SA team to cajole toward title success swings right
back to the blindingly obvious.
Right now, though,
I have this tangible gut feeling about the Sharks as late-season chargers.
coupled, alas, with a nagging fear that the Lions’ race, in the most critical
respects, is run.
of no Malcolm Marx, the undisputed fulcrum figure of their pack, until at least
the end of the June recess period hardly helps subdue that suspicion …
*Remaining fixtures for both teams:
Lions (played 11, 31 points): Highlanders (a), Brumbies (h),
Stormers (a), Sharks (a), Bulls (h)
Sharks (played 10, 23 points): Bulls (a), Chiefs (h), Jaguares (a),
Lions (h), Stormers (a), Jaguares (h)
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: