Crowd at top of the log shows there is a good spread of talent in this tough competition.
It is hard to accept the inevitable criticism aimed at Super Rugby’s proposed new format in the light of current events: the expansion from 15 teams to 18 that will, in all probability, happen in 2016 is supposed to further dilute a product that has been on the slippery slope for a decade now.
There are, say the critics, too many teams that can’t win the title getting in the way of the genuine contenders. Yet here we are at an advanced stage of log play in the 2015 competition and just six points divide the teams between second and ninth in the standings. There are elite sporting competitions all over the world that wish they had such a level playing field.
One thing that has become clear since the conference system was adopted two years ago is that the length of the season allows for light and shade. There was room in the first month for the feel-good factor of the returning Lions, for instance. Johan Ackermann’s team won four games in rapid succession and there was talk of them making the playoffs. But they haven’t won a game since March 22 and have dropped to 12th on the log.
By contrast, the Crusaders have overcome a poor start to return to the higher echelons with the inevitability of a piece of toast falling butter-side down. They currently lie in sixth position but have a game in hand on all the teams above them. The seven-time champions humbled the Brumbies 40-20 in Christchurch last week, and should do the same against the Reds in Brisbane this coming Sunday.
The result in Christchurch, coupled with the Hurricanes’ loss to the Waratahs in Sydney, conspired to restore the breathing space at the top of the log enjoyed for so long by the Sharks. Jake White’s side is five points clear of the chasing pack, nine clear of the Crusaders. This week they face the Brumbies in Canberra in a game that should have a significant bearing on how things will look at the end of log play.
It probably won’t be pretty. White is returning to the franchise he dragged out of the doldrums in two years at the helm. His decision to break a four-year contract with the Brumbies at the halfway point was extremely unpopular and it’s likely that he has been reminded of that fact repeatedly this week.
But one door closes and another opens, and the Brumbies have done equally well with Laurie Fisher and Stephen Larkham at the helm.
Larkham began as a fullback when the Brumbies made their debut in the Super 12 back in 1996. The rugby that side played was a breath of fresh air and it may be that Larkham is the heir to the maverick spirit of Rod Macqueen, the coach who persuaded him to move to flyhalf. If the Brumbies can find a blend between Larkham’s flair and the pragmatism instilled by White they will be hard to stop.
It is White’s task this week to find a way past his old side with his new charges. He has not been helped by tour-ending injuries to Marcel Coetzee and Fred Zeilinga. He recognises, furthermore, that the one-dimensional play of last week’s 22-16 win over the Rebels in Melbourne will not be enough to beard the Brumbies in their Canberra den.
The time will come, for instance, when Frans Steyn misses a few kicks. It has been an amazing season for the rejuvenated World Cup winner but the wheels will surely come off at some stage. When that happens, the Sharks need to have something to fall back on.
Right now their attack is based almost entirely around the mazy running of fullback Lwazi Mvovo. JP Pietersen looks a shadow of the player he was before transferring to Japan, the nadir coming in Durban against the Highlanders a fortnight ago, when he knocked the ball on in scoring positions no less than three times.
White is aware of his team’s shortcomings, although he would probably continue to parrot the line in press conferences about the proof of the pudding being revealed by log positions.
The poor showing of South Africa’s other four franchises, all of which are nestled in the bottom six, has raised the bar of expectations for the Sharks, but that is no concern of White, or of his team.
It is more than likely that the Brumbies will return to winning ways this week, for Canberra remains a city where South African wins are as rare as rocking horse droppings. The best the Sharks can hope for is a bonus point for keeping the scoreline close, although previous experience suggests that a four-try dividend is a bridge too far.
If White’s wishes were granted, he would be asking the genie for a Blues victory against the Chiefs in New Plymouth and for the Reds to find a way past the Crusaders in Brisbane. That would go some way towards compensating for the loss of momentum for the team from Durban that seems inevitable on Saturday.