The Sharks need to win well in Bloemfontein this Saturday to keep their dream of topping the combined Vodacom Super Rugby table alive, writes JON CARDINELLI.
When Super Rugby broke for the June Tests, the winner of the South African conference had already been decided. In claiming this title, Jake White's charges ensured that they cannot finish lower that third on the overall log.
Their place in the play-offs is assured, and it seems likely that they will host a semi-final. However, there is no cause to celebrate just yet.
Finishing the league at the top of the log will guarantee that they don't travel to Australasia for a possible final. It will increase their chances of winning the Super Rugby title.
Unfortunately, their destiny is no longer in their own hands. The Waratahs thrashed the Brumbies in Sydney this past Saturday, and that bonus-point victory has propelled them three log points clear of the Sharks at the top of the table.
The Sharks need the Waratahs' next two opponents, the Highlanders and Reds, to do them a massive favour. If the Highlanders win in Sydney and the Reds prevail in the big Australian derby, it will make the Sharks' task of topping the table easier.
But while the Highlanders have knocked over some big teams this season – the Sharks in Durban, and the Chiefs in Dunedin, to name a couple – they may struggle to beat this Waratahs side. Michael Cheika's team have not lost in Sydney in 2014, and they will be favourites in the coming encounter.
The result of the grudge match against the Reds is less predictable, and the fact that this installment of the saga will be played out in Brisbane should give the Sharks hope.
In the meantime, the Sharks have to do all they can to bank maximum log points in their remaining games. Their last two matches will be played away from home, against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein, and the Stormers in Cape Town.
The Cheetahs are at the foot of the log for good reason. While they have played some thrilling attacking rugby at times, their defence is the worst in the tournament.
It's not overly ambitious to suggest the Sharks can take five log points from the coming derby. In fact, a narrow win should be viewed as a missed opportunity.
A big win this weekend for the Sharks in Bloemfontein and for the Waratahs in Sydney will set up an interesting final round, with both teams still jousting for the No 1 position. The Reds vs Waratahs game will be played before the clash between the Stormers and Sharks, and so the Durban side will know exactly what is required before kick-off in Cape Town.
The Sharks are still in with a sniff, but I think they will come to rue those losses to the Highlanders and Stormers, both of which were at Kings Park. Victory in just one of those matches would have handed them an extra four points, and by the end of the league, those four points may be the difference between topping the log and finishing second, between hosting a final and travelling to Sydney for a decider.
The Hurricanes stalled the Crusaders last Saturday, but the Cantabrians should still do enough to clinch the Kiwi conference over the next two weeks. It's likely that the first round of the play-offs will be played in New Zealand.
The semi-finals, however, should be played in Sydney and Durban. No doubt that the team that finishes the league in first place will have more to play for. This team will know that they have a chance to host a final, and that the decider will be played against a side that may be forced to travel from overseas. Such is the flawed Super Rugby format.
The Sharks blew an opportunity when they hosted the Stormers in their most recent match. They must make their visits to Bloemfontein and Cape Town count in the coming weeks, and then hope that the Waratahs stumble against the Highlanders or Reds.
This will allow them to claim pole position, and increase their chances of claiming the title itself.
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