Not too early to tell Shark from bait
The Super Rugby season has barely started, but the Kiwis are already under a long white cloud.
The opening salvos are over and, after a staggered start, Super Rugby has settled into a new season. The majority of sides have played four games, and it is already possible to pick the sheep from the goats. It is distressing to see the Cheetahs and the Stormers propping up the log, but the strength of the game in this country is revealed by the fact that South Africa has three franchises in the top six.
The Sharks are the outright leaders with four wins, and the only other unbeaten side is the second-placed Chiefs. The other four New Zealand franchises occupy positions nine through 12, and it is scarcely credible but entirely true that, among them, the Crusaders, Blues, Highlanders and Hurricanes have won just five times in 15 starts.
This has caused consternation in the land of the long white cloud, where questions are being asked about teams in general and the value of Benji Marshall in particular. The Blues fullback was bought out of a lucrative rugby league contract and expected to have the same impact on the 15-a-side game as fellow code switchers such as Jason Robinson and Brad Thorne. So far that has not been the case.
The Blues returned home this week after losing to the Bulls and Lions on successive weekends, and now have to pick up the pieces against the Cheetahs at Eden Park. Naka Drotske's men will never have a better chance of winning at New Zealand's greatest venue than now, against a jet-lagged team that has a solitary win over the Crusaders to its name this term.
The Australian conference has traditionally been the weakest of the three, yet only the Rebels languish towards the bottom of the log. The other four franchises are all in the top eight and capable of doing damage to a few lofty ambitions. The Brumbies lie third and the Waratahs fifth, with the Force and the Reds at seven and eight respectively.
And yet, even with Australian rugby apparently on the comeback trail, if you were to do a straw poll right now it would probably suggest that the Sharks will play the Chiefs in a repeat of the 2012 final when the time comes. They are the only two unbeaten sides and when under pressure, have been able to perform. But there is a long, long way to go.
This week, the Sharks travel to Pretoria just five weeks after they played the Bulls at Kings Park. The Sharks won 31-16 at home in a match that marked the return to first-class rugby of Victor Matfield. Tried gingerly off the bench back in February, Matfield has since rekindled his magical powers to the extent that the Bulls are once again being touted as potential conference winners.
Another old player makes a return for them this week, with Dewald Potgieter returning from Japan and going straight into the starting line-up. The Ndungane twins will face each other across a crowded backline after taking time off to grieve the death of their father. In Odwa's absence last week, another returnee from Japan slotted back into the Sharks side and this weekend JP Pietersen will win his 100th Super Rugby cap.
Now 27, Pietersen has scarcely had a bad game since making his Sharks debut in 2005, having just turned 19. Pietersen played lock at school in Witbank, and had the correct physical attributes to justify the position. But when he moved to fullback in his matric year, the long stride and deceptive pace were immediately in evidence.
Pietersen had to work long and hard on his kicking game – perhaps inevitably, given his playing position for most of his school career – but now he is the complete rugby footballer. It was clear in last week's win against the Reds that Pietersen was some way from being match fit, but the Bulls tend to bring out the best in him and he can be expected to feature prominently on Saturday.
Rude good health
As ever, the game will be won or lost among the forwards and the rude health of that aspect of South Africa's game should give their Sanzar partners pause for thought. With Pieter-Steph du Toit ruled out for the rest of the season by injury, Matfield can be expected to dominate the line-out, while the Sharks should have the upper hand in the collisions.
Elsewhere, the Lions host the Reds at Ellis Park. With three wins out of five, Johan Ackermann's team lies fourth on the log and, even if they lose all of their subsequent fixtures, it might still be argued that they had had a successful season. They will assuredly not plumb those depths, however, having proved their own mental strength against the fast-finishing Blues last week.
It's hard to imagine that the Stormers and the Cheetahs can break their losing streaks against the Brumbies and the Blues respectively. Neither has found the inspiration needed on tour; each is currently less than the sum of its parts. Nevertheless, both sides have enough quality players to upset the form book on any given day.