The Sharks won’t win in Christchurch this weekend but it doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of winning the title this season, writes MARK KEOHANE in Business Day newspaper.
The Sharks remain South Africa’s best bet of Super Rugby glory, but they can’t afford to stumble beyond Christchurch.
I had the Sharks to win against the Brumbies in Canberra. I picked Jake White to know how to beat his former team and I also expected the Sharks forwards to have a significant advantage in the scrum and in the collisions.
A year ago in Durban the Brumbies' physicality had stunned the Sharks. I really expected more from the Sharks this time around but they still fell short of the kind of performance that would have one talking of their championship title credentials with more conviction than hope.
Frans Steyn, so often the Sharks talisman, could not find his radar in Canberra and had his accuracy matched his determination it could have been the Sharks celebrating in the rain.
White was not flustered because of the defeat, but he would have got a reminder that the Sharks are vulnerable away from home. They have lost two from three and after this weekend it should be three from four.
But it’s what happens a week later against the Blues that will determine the seriousness of the Sharks title challenge.
White’s Sharks have played the percentages to lead the league table after 11 matches, but he knows they will have to add a dimension to their attacking play if the current standing is to prevail when the league stage is completed.
The Crusaders, who had shown very little form in the first month of the tournament, have been outstanding in the past month. They’re a team whose players have shown an ability to win away from home with successes in Hamilton, Johannesburg, Bloemfontein, Melbourne and emphatically in Brisbane against the Reds.
They are also a team that can score points. They got 50 against the Cheetahs, 40 against the Brumbies and 50 against the Reds. They also have back the incomparable Richie McCaw. They are the team running hot in the competition but the month-long break for the June internationals could disrupt the momentum.
The margins in this tournament are particularly small.
Bulls coach Frans Ludeke, with a bit of good fortune, could have enjoyed four successive away wins. Instead his team returned with four successive defeats by seven points or less.
The Bulls, in the last two weekends, have beaten the Cheetahs and Stormers at Loftus and they are a side who have benefited from veteran lock Victor Matfield’s return and the investment in a youthful back division. I doubt they can progress beyond the play-offs, but a top-six finish would be a fair reflection of their quality as a unit and the performance that would have been associated with their season.
Handré Pollard’s 20-point contribution against the Stormers was significant amid the talk of him being a Springbok before the end of the year. Bulls and Springbok centre Jan Serfontein also showed fantastic form and young lock Paul Willemse is playing like a youthful Bakkies Botha.
The Bulls have been the biggest improvers among the South African teams. I feel they have improved their all-round game. Their attack is far more dangerous with Pollard at flyhalf and in the past month Francois Hougaard has also finally found his touch again. Matfield’s experience is massive and the Bulls are showing an appetite to balance a percentage game with one that understands the rewards for risk.
The Bulls have shown a greater attacking mindset than the Sharks in the past month, which doesn’t necessarily make them a better team. But they are an improving team and they are currently playing with more innovation than the Sharks, which doesn’t mean the Sharks aren’t capable of adding this attacking edge come the play-offs.
The Stormers and Cheetahs were again woeful, which has been the story of their season and the Lions were again brave, which has been the story of their season.
South Africa, in the Sharks and Bulls, has two very capable Super Rugby play-off contenders, but on form both would struggle to win play-off matches away from home.
Not so the Crusaders on current form. The Chiefs are equally capable of getting results away from home.
The Brumbies still remain the best of the Australian options and the Waratahs and Force challenge could fade post the June internationals.
Photo: Mark Nolan/Getty Images
Super Rugby preview: Cheetahs
The Cheetahs could struggle again in this year's tournament after a mass exodus of players.
Super Rugby preview: Bulls
The Vodacom Bulls will still be in a transition phase in 2015 but should improve on last year's campaign.
Super Rugby preview: Stormers
The Stormers are under pressure to perform in 2015 after two disappointing seasons.