Jake White admits his players have gone into their shells, and all the stops will have to be pulled out against the on-form Crusaders.
With two weekends of action to go before the June international window opens, things are finally beginning to coalesce in the top echelons of Super Rugby.
The top three on the log are the Sharks on 36 points, the Chiefs on 35 and the Brumbies on 34. There is then a three-point gap to the Crusaders and the Force, who both have 31 points, but crucially each has a game in hand on the leaders. Places six to eight are taken by the Hurricanes and the Highlanders (both on 30) and the Waratahs (29).
The six playoff places will almost certainly be divided among these eight teams. That may seem unkind to the Bulls, who have found a modicum of form at last, but the blue machine has played 12 matches for its 28 points – two more than four of the teams above it – and sits out this week with its second bye.
For the past two seasons that bye would have guaranteed the Bulls four points, but thankfully that ludicrous system has been consigned to the dustbin of history.
When the Bulls resume it will be against the Brumbies at Loftus, and defeat in that game would probably scupper whatever slim chance they still have of contending for the playoffs.
It would be unfair to suggest that the wheels have fallen off the log-leading Sharks, but recent displays point to the fact that the home semifinal that seemed assured a while back is now looking far from certain. Two defeats in three weekends sandwiched a less than convincing display against the Rebels in Melbourne.
It is a fact acknowledged by coach Jake White: the team is battling to assert itself. White said on Monday: “I know people are talking about our attack and I realise that we’ve gone into our shells a little bit. We’ve been trying to grind out wins, but perhaps that’s not the right way to do it when you’re away from home ... I know some may have a perception that I’m conservative as a coach, but ... it’s about playing to the strengths you have as a group at a certain time.”
Those strengths will be tested to the full in Christchurch on Saturday against a Crusaders team that has won five games in a row. Last week’s second-half demolition of the Reds in Brisbane was as strong a statement as any side has made in the 2014 competition. Down 17-16 at the break, the seven-time champions won the game 57-29, scoring five tries in the process.
It is a fact that South African sides do not prosper in Christchurch and a win for the Crusaders might see them leapfrog the Sharks on the log. A win and four tries would draw the Crusaders level on log points and then it would be down to the difference in points scored; currently the Sharks are +87, the Crusaders +76.
The second-placed Chiefs have a bye this week, and the Brumbies flew into South Africa on Monday ahead of their fixture with the Cheetahs on Saturday.
It is a safe bet that this game will be dramatically different in content from the Brumbies tussle with the Sharks. The Cheetahs have the kind of porous defence beloved of Australasian sides and the visitors will be delighted to cast off the shackles imposed by the miserly Sharks in Canberra.
Any kind of win for the Brumbies, coupled with a defeat for the Sharks, would mean that they would top the table at the conclusion of the weekend. But that also does not guarantee them a home semifinal, since this season’s surprise package, the Western Force still have an interest in topping the Australian conference.
With a game in hand on the Brumbies, the Force have a chance to make history by winning both their games on tour in South Africa. Last week it was against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein; this week they play the Stormers in Cape Town.
The home side are likely to be without both of their iconic Springboks, Jean de Villiers and Schalk Burger. It is a moot point whether that would have improved the home side’s chances, however, such has been the Stormers’ poor form in 2014.
It has been a dreadful year for injuries for the Cape side, but they are not unique in that. The Sharks have lost Pat Lambie, Pieter-Steph du Toit and a host of others, yet they have remained competitive. The Stormers have been decimated at lock and hooker, but there remains a question mark over the process of quality control at Newlands.
Who, for instance, allowed Handré Pollard to sign for the Bulls two seasons ago? The former Paarl Gym boy will captain South Africa’s under-20 team to the IRB Junior World Championship in New Zealand in June. It will be Pollard’s third successive tournament and he has already made the step up to Super Rugby seem an easy one.
The usual excuse in the Cape is that their elite schools produce so many potential world-beaters that it is sometimes hard to separate the sheep from the goats. It is, however, precisely the ability to do just that that marks out successful businesses. The Stormers need to fix their pipeline fast if they are to arrest an all-too-apparent downward spiral.