Pressure builds on Sharks

The Sharks need to beat the Crusaders in Durban in order to offset their disappointing draw to the Bulls in round four. JON CARDINELLI reports.

At the end of round three, the Sharks were the best placed South African team as far as results were concerned (three wins). They also appeared to be in a good space following a superior tactical performance against the Stormers at Newlands.

At the end of round four, nothing had changed with regard to the Sharks’ position at the top of the South African group and Africa 2 conference. On the face of it, they remain on track to host a playoff.

And yet much will depend on how they fare over the next eight weeks. Fixtures against the Crusaders and Lions at Kings Park will be followed by a three-game tour to New Zealand. They will fly back to Durban for a match against the Hurricanes. Thereafter, they will keep heading west for a showdown with the Jaguares in Buenos Aires.

The Sharks have done well to top the log after four rounds. The big question, of course, is whether they’ve banked enough log points in the lead-up to the most testing part of their season. Indeed, they may come to lament Joe Pietersen’s last-minute miss at Loftus Versfeld in round four. 

The Africa 2 conference looks set to be decided by a couple of log points. The Sharks did enough to claim the draw and two log points in Pretoria last week. However, if they fail to finish at the top of Africa 2 or even secure that third qualifying spot in the South African group, they will regret not banking the full four points in the away match against the Bulls.

While the Lions currently sit at second in Africa 2 and third in the South African group, they are in a very strong position. Johan Ackermann’s charges have already completed their tour to Japan and New Zealand. Bar a visit to Buenos Aires in July, the Lions will play the remainder of their conference matches in South Africa.

Two points separate the Sharks and Lions at the top of Africa 2. This is not a significant gap when one takes the Sharks’ upcoming matches into account.

The Sharks need to make their last two home matches before the New Zealand tour count. They have to beat the Crusaders this coming Saturday – no easy feat if one remembers that the Cantabrians scored 50-plus points in Durban last year – if they are to keep the Lions at arm’s length. Following a bye in round six, the Sharks will then host the Lions in a crucial Africa 2 derby.

The Stormers’ win against the Brumbies in round four was a significant one in the context of their season. It should please Robbie Fleck and company to know that they’ve come through the toughest home fixture on their league calendar with a tick in the win column.

The Cape side has been done a number of favours by the draw this year. Their schedule sees them playing the Australian sides rather than the New Zealand franchises. It ensures that they play the two best Australian teams, the Brumbies and Waratahs, at Newlands rather than in Australia.

The Stormers have already felled the Brumbies. They boast a good record against the Waratahs, particularly at Newlands. The Stormers could well go on to claim five wins from five matches against the Australian teams, and thus strengthen their position for a home playoff.

They will have another great opportunity this weekend in Buenos Aires. The Chiefs fought hard for a victory against the Jaguares this past Saturday, and it’s clear that a visit to the Argentinian capital will test even the best Super Rugby teams in 2016. The Stormers will need to be at their best to record a first win at Velez Sarfield. A win against the Jaguares would set them up nicely, considering they will enjoy a bye in round six and then a home match against the Sunwolves. Put it this way, if the Stormers beat the Jaguares, they will be in a position to claim three wins in a row.

The Bulls and Cheetahs have it all to do if they are going to bounce back and lay claim on that third qualifying spot in the South African group. At this stage, the Bulls and Cheetahs are well behind the Stormers in Africa 1 and sit at fifth and sixth place respectively in the South African group.

The Kings are yet to record a single log point. They were hammered 57-24 by a second-string Crusaders team last week, and may suffer a similar fate when they take on the Hurricanes this coming Friday.

Photo: Anne Laing/HSM Images

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