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    Sharks’ slump: Is it just the start?

    2019-04-19 20:21

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town – Call it their ultra-flaky fortnight.

    Just two weeks on from their champagne showing against the Lions at Emirates Airline Park, the Sharks suddenly look dangerously close to dead in the water as far as any title-challenging possibilities in Super Rugby 2019 are concerned.

    In what must be about as shocking a two-game home spell as the Durban faithful can remember in the competition, successive defeats to the less-than-juggernaut Jaguares and Reds have left increasingly under-scrutiny Robert du Preez’s charges in some danger of the wooden spoon in the SA conference, come the end of ordinary season.

    Fortunately for them, the group and tournament as a whole – now just beyond the midway stage of pre-knockout activity -- has been wildly unpredictable this year.

    Yes, the Sharks are still clinging to a well-stocked, wishy-washy peloton, if you like.

    But on what was anything but a Good Friday for them, the latest hammer blow (crashing 21-14 to the resilient, organised and at very least equally physical and no-nonsense Queenslanders) opens up the very real threat of a slide to obscurity from here.

    By banking a miserly one log point from the pair of Kings Park games that had looked so inviting on paper, and conceding 10 tries (seven to the Argentineans last week), the Sharks head off imminently on a tough Australasian tour riddled by self-doubt and insecurity.

    With a record of four victories and five defeats, they are the only SA conference outfit currently showing a negative win-loss ratio, although they retain a mid-table status (third) that could be short-lived – what with the Stormers in action at home to the Brumbies on Saturday.

    Bleak-faced captain Louis Schreuder admitted in his latest immediate post-game television interview that there was a “spiral effect … mistake after mistake” against the Reds.

    The Sharks, it must be said, created enough chances to have prevailed in this one, but butchered several try-scoring opportunities through last passes going astray or other errors rooted either in clumsiness or over-eagerness.

    They also continued a particularly worrisome penchant for missing key first-time tackles that allowed Reds attackers to punch holes over the advantage line, including several around the flyhalf channel where Robert du Preez jnr is well less than on top of his game defensively.

    Indeed, the decision to only push slippery game-breaker Curwin Bosch into the No 10 role just before the hour mark, when Du Preez was put out of his relative misery and benched, was criticised afterwards by SuperSport pundit and former home-town icon John Smit.

    But the Springbok World Cup-winning captain, trying hard to remain upbeat, did add that he felt the Sharks going abroad at this juncture was potentially welcome: “It is a chance to get away from the noise … to stick together in (a tour environment).”

    Although much of it was also fatally indelicate, there was enough huff and puff in this match – much more absent against the Jaguares – to suggest that all is not yet surrendered by the team in spirit terms.

    The Sharks have shown before that they can defy the odds across the Indian Ocean, with last season a pretty recent example: they were only really whipped in one match (Rebels) but beat the Blues, only lost sickeningly late to the Hurricanes (38-37) and also earned a losing bonus point against the Brumbies.

    This time, it is only a three-game itinerary, but all of the Waratahs, Crusaders and Chiefs – in that order -- nevertheless look formidable opponents and, even when they return home, the Sharks’ run-in remains a near-stinker: there is probably a better than even chance that the Sharks fall irreversibly from the finals series radar in the next three or four weeks.

    An altogether more positive South African development on Friday was the Lions’ contrasting steeliness in their 23-17 triumph over the Chiefs in Hamilton.

    They remarkably kept the Mooloo Men scoreless in their own stronghold for an hour, as they assembled a 20-0 cushion themselves, although they had to hang on grimly in the final quarter to ward off a valiant, fast-paced fightback from the hosts.

    There has been some tumult in the Lions’ camp this week, including the sudden return home of coach Swys de Bruin for largely undisclosed reasons, and their starting line-up was also altered – almost certainly for the better – at the eleventh hour, as supposedly “semi-rested” core figures like Malcolm Marx and Elton Jantjies instead ran out at the beginning (they’d first been named as subs) and were influential in the gradual head of steam built.

    It was also of enormous value to have Warren Whiteley reinstated from several weeks of injury layoff as No 8 and skipper; he put in an inspired shift for a rusty player and was especially effective for his skills and gumption when roaming in wide positions on the park.

    The Lions close their tour against the Crusaders next Friday, and may just decide on that daunting occasion to finally sit out some overworked stalwarts and throw certain second-tier figures into the fray before regrouping back on the Highveld for the home straight …

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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    Saturday, 25 May 2019
    • Sunwolves v Rebels, Chichibunomiya Rugby Stadium 07:15
    • Crusaders v Blues, AMI Stadium 09:35
    • Waratahs v Jaguares, Allianz Stadium 11:45
    • Stormers v Highlanders, Cape Town 15:05
    • Sharks v Lions, Jonsson Kings Park Stadium 17:15
    Friday, 31 May 2019
    • Blues v Bulls, Eden Park 09:35
    • Rebels v Waratahs, AAMI Park 11:45
    Saturday, 01 June 2019
    • Sunwolves v Brumbies, Chichibunomiya Rugby Stadium 07:15
    • Chiefs v Crusaders, ANZ National Stadium 09:35
    • Reds v Jaguares, Suncorp Stadium 11:45
    • Sharks v Hurricanes, Jonsson Kings Park Stadium 15:05
    • Lions v Stormers, Emirates Airline Park 17:15

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