Sharks have to move in for the kill
The toughest two weeks of the Super Rugby season are upon us. Teams that have not played a match in a month are expected to come out firing and secure log positions before the knockout stages.
In Australia and New Zealand, the competition was resuscitated last week, although the Springboks’ fixture with Scotland in Port Elizabeth kept local sides inactive.
In effect, of course, the only South African side affected is the Sharks. The Cheetahs, the Lions and the Stormers are all in the bottom five on the log and cannot qualify, and a whole host of unlikely eventualities need to occur for the Bulls to rise from 10th to sixth.
Suffice it to say, if the Bulls lose to the Stormers in Cape Town this weekend, their season really is over. But, should they win, and if other results go their way, there is the delicious prospect of a final log game at Loftus against the Melbourne Rebels.
In 2007, the year the Bulls first won what was then the Super 12, they needed a big win in their final game against the Reds. The 92-3 score line remains the biggest winning margin in the history of Super Rugby. It also remains the litmus test for what can be achieved by a team that has nothing to lose and everything to gain.
It might be worth Jake White digging out the video of that match to inspire his charges at the Sharks, for this week they face the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein in the knowledge that defeat is not an option. The Sharks have been frontrunners for most of the season but now find themselves three points adrift of the pacesetters, the Waratahs.
No signs of rust
The Sydney unit whipped the Brumbies 39-8 last week and showed no signs of rust in the process. They have not lost since late April and have a relatively mild run-in, with a home fixture against the Highlanders this week and a trip to Brisbane to play the Reds after that. If the Waratahs win both games, they will top the log come what may, which means that the Sharks are in effect playing for second place and a guaranteed home semifinal.
They will have to hit the ground running, for the Cheetahs have shown all year an ability to unlock opposition defences. Their lowly position on the log is owed to the fact that they have not found a way to shore up their own try line.
The attacking genius that is Willie le Roux is the biggest threat to the Sharks. Le Roux has spent the past month cementing his position in the Springbok side by doing in Test matches all the things he has turned into routine at provincial level.
In the past week’s 55-6 mauling of the Scots, there were seven Cheetahs among the match-day 23 and only six Sharks. Significantly, at the same time as Le Roux was strutting his stuff, Cornal Hendricks and Lood de Jager went from boys to men. This is significant, for it is highly unlikely that either was on the radar of the national coach at the beginning of the season.
Also significant was the 20 minutes of match time allowed young Oupa Mohoje against the Scots. It is likely that Mohoje had no idea how well he was playing at Varsity Cup and provincial level. It is true of all sport that you can only play against the opposition that turns up, and Mohoje’s emergence was as much the result of injuries to other players as it was to his own ability. Nevertheless, he now knows that his reputation precedes him and it will be fascinating to see how he responds to that.
As for the Sharks, they have one thing going for them that the Springboks don’t: Frans Steyn. If Mohoje’s development is fascinating, then it is greatly overshadowed by the controversy surrounding perhaps the most talented back of his generation. Steyn’s career now stands at the crossroads, because of a financial dispute with the South African Rugby Union.
If Steyn is indeed on the side of the angels in the dispute, he can be expected to emerge from a month off with fire in his belly and enough motivation to sink a dozen Cheetah ships. If, however, he is guilty of holding the national side in contempt then be certain that it will reflect in his play. It is perhaps worth remembering that the graveyards are filled with indispensable men.
It is also worth remembering that the Sharks reached the final of the competition two seasons ago despite not finishing in the top four in log play. It is possible that the same thing might happen this year, for a defeat to the Cheetahs on Saturday and another against the Stormers in Cape Town next week would see them needing to find a bonus point from somewhere just to stay in the top six.
But in the event that the Sharks find a way past the Cheetahs this week, they should nail down a home semifinal and, with the resources available to them this year, that ought to be enough at least to contest the final, with a better-than-average chance of actually winning it.