Sharks: SA’s best horse to back from here?

    2018-05-09 13:00

    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 silverware goal.

    A 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.

    Of course 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.

    Swys de 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.)

    Such a 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.

    What’s more, 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.

    That could 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.

    The Sharks 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.

    Before last 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?

    Ironically 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.

    That hardly 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 still-in-lectures Bulls.

    Considering 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.

    Whilst the 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.

    Perhaps only 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.

    Whilst the 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”.

    In short, 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.

    The raw 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.

    Let me 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.

    It is coupled, alas, with a nagging fear that the Lions’ race, in the most critical respects, is run.

    Confirmation 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: @RobHouwing

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