Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Round 13 immediately ahead on the long weekend ... getting fairly close to the final straight of ordinary season in Super Rugby 2020, with half a dozen weekends to go.
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Well, that’s how it might have been, but for the unwelcome, crippling intrusion of the coronavirus pandemic.
Instead the competition has been idle since the middle of March, with an ever-shrinking likelihood that it will resume this season unless some sort of abbreviated, creative solution becomes possible in the next few weeks.
When the suspension came, the Sharks were top of both the SA conference and overall table, a point clear of New Zealand leaders the Crusaders and Australian pace-setters the Brumbies, both of whom nevertheless had a game in hand.
Still, Sean Everitt’s charges were going great guns with six victories from seven matches and already safe in the knowledge that their Australasian tour was behind them.
But would they still have been leading the charge at this point, had the competition been running its natural course?
While it is pure speculation – and yes, dangerously so – I fancy that the KwaZulu-Natalians, had they played their scheduled four matches (one bye) in the five inactive rounds that have passed to this point, would still have been sporting a desperately narrow advantage over the defending-champion Crusaders at the top, with the Brumbies having dropped off the pace just a little, although still well enough positioned.
I believe the Sharks would have had it in them, based on lead-up form and levels of hunger, to have won all four matches that have fallen by the wayside: Chiefs (home), Lions (away), Waratahs (home) and Stormers (away).
Three of them, by my estimation, would have been slugged-out, “basic” wins, with just one - the notably labouring Waratahs at Kings Park - presenting the likelihood of a bonus-point triumph, so shifting the Sharks to 41 points from 10 matches.
A stumble somewhere along that way would have entirely possible, I concede: the Chiefs game, for example, would have been a tricky ask (though the Waikato side had come off their own drawback of a long-haul flight) considering it was the gruelling eighth scheduled game on the trot for the Sharks – the much-needed bye was earmarked for a week later.
But Everitt would have implored them to the proverbial “one last heroic effort” before the feet-up weekend and, with injuries not too much of a factor in their camp at the time, they might well have eked out the desired result.
Refreshed by the bye, they ought to have then had the Lions’ number in the Johannesburg derby - they won 42-5 with a rare, champagne showing at Ellis Park last season, remember - plus seen off the ‘Tahs comfortably in Durban.
Stormers in the return clash with their great coastal rivals at Newlands (last Saturday, if it had been possible)?
Another bruising encounter ... but I’d have fancied the Sharks to complete a 2020 double against them, primarily on the grounds that the Stormers were being abjectly torn apart by injuries to key Springbok personnel at the time the season came to a grinding halt.
Minus Steven Kitshoff, Bongi Mbonambi, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Siya Kolisi (and others): it would have taken a herculean effort from a weakened combo to overcome the visitors.
As for the Crusaders, I would have similarly backed them, in the four further matches (one bye) they’d have played up to today, to win three in ordinary fashion and perhaps one with a bonus point, thus leaving them on about 40 points - again one shy of the Sharks and still with a match in hand.
Potential hazards would have stared them in the face, too, not least because three of the four tussles were intended NZ derbies (Hurricanes and Blues at home, Highlanders away). But I would have tipped them to have repelled all domestic foes by fairly tight margins, while stretching their legs a little more consummately in beating the Rebels across the ditch with a full house of five log points.
I would have budgeted on the Brumbies, meanwhile, having a slip-up against either of the Blues away or Hurricanes at home, while winning one of those clashes and also seeing off Reds (away) and Jaguares (home) ... so they’d now be perched around 36 points, also yet with a game in hand on the Sharks.
When the competition stopped, it has to be said that both the Blues and Chiefs were going good guns as well, right in contention.
But I have a nagging suspicion that the Aucklanders were punching a little above their weight, while the Chiefs, in my already-revealed “crystal ball” would have lost some ground through a Durban setback.
Table this week? Yes, Sharks still bossing it by a whisker ...
*The coming weekend’s fixtures would have been (home teams first):
Friday: Crusaders v Jaguares, Rebels v Blues. Saturday: Chiefs v Stormers, Sharks v Brumbies, Bulls v Sunwolves. Sunday: Reds v Highlanders. Byes: Lions, Hurricanes, Waratahs.
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