Rob Houwing - Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - Sean Everitt, head coach of the currently thriving and easy-on-the-eye Sharks, will have to be more strategically on the ball than ever over the tricky next trio of Super Rugby weekends for his charges.
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The KwaZulu-Natalians have an appetising run, at least on paper, of three successive home matches at Kings Park, beginning with last season’s beaten finalists the Jaguares on Saturday (15:05).
Then follows a titanic clash against fellow SA conference aspirants the Stormers, and the Chiefs a week later.
While all are traditionally among the tougher of foes, the fact that they will be rooted to their Durban stronghold for a solid period suggests the Sharks should have a rosy chance of building further on their prosperity of the first few rounds of the 2020 competition.
They can bask in the knowledge that they lie a desperately close second to the Stormers in the SA group - after five matches each with four victories to show - but are more favourably placed given that their stirringly productive tour of Australasia is safely out of the way.
There is one cloud on the immediate horizon, however, and it has to do with the sheer volume of play the Sharks have had to this point, which could present a problem or two for the home sequence in question.
Ideally, a bye over the coming weekend would have been a pretty welcome development for them, straight off the four-match tour exertions and long flight back across time zones - instead it is coastal rivals the Stormers who enter their first one, ahead of the big derby in less than a fortnight.
The allocation of feet-up weekends this year has not been terribly kind to the Sharks, who must first summon reserves of energy to negotiate all of the next three obligations before “bye one” appears on the weekend of March 27/28… and certainly not before time for them.
There is, regrettably, a further peril: the Sharks then play their next, “final straight” eight-match spell in ordinary season again over as many weekends, without interruption.
Their last bye is in the very last round of the pre-knockout phase - which is about as useful as using the microwave during an Eskom load-shed, and increases the onus on the team to have ensured a good seeding by then.
Everitt has boxed suitably clever with his player rotations in the first few weeks, handing once-off breaks already to some of his prime front-rowers and loose forwards in the pack, for example, as well as backline superstars like captain Lukhanyo Am (he sat out the Rebels match) and Makazole Mapimpi (more recently against the Reds).
Both of those matches still saw satisfying triumphs for the Sharks.
But now the mastermind and his lieutenants must chew on how to approach the three next-up fixtures, where a collective sense of fatigue - perhaps not unlike the appallingly lacklustre Stormers demonstrated against the Blues at the weekend? - might take root, however spiritedly they try to prevent it.
One common denominator that could come home to bite the Sharks nastily, and soon, is the especially taxing workload that has been carried so far by their regular lock choice of Hyron Andrews and Ruben van Heerden.
The second row is arguably the department where the franchise are least generously staffed, depth-wise, and both the mobile Andrews and more grunt-entrusted No 4 Van Heerden are already close to a situation of over-play.
But what chance Everitt being prepared to sit out a conspicuous tally of his core personnel against the Jaguares, emboldened by their bonus-point win at Loftus last Saturday?
Firmly on his mind, into the complex bargain, will be knowledge of last season’s Kings Park fiasco against the same side, when the Sharks were thumped 51-17, one of their worst home video nasties in Super Rugby history.
The majority of their current first XV were involved in that Jaguares-triggered debacle, and no doubt desirous of making amends here.
Historically, just how well do the Sharks tend to fare in their demanding first game back, straight off the tour?
Here’s some bright news: the stats show that they have more often than not managed to win it; three times in the last four opportunities, although the 2018 outcome against the Bulls sticks out like a sore thumb as a portent of possible danger this Saturday …
Sharks’ recent record in first match back, one week after their Australasian tour:
2019: Not applicable - bye
2018: Lost 40-10 to Bulls (Durban)
2017: Beat Waratahs 37-14 (Durban)
2016: Beat Hurricanes 32-15 (Durban)
2015: Beat Rebels 25-21 (Durban)
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