The Sharks’ big win against the Hurricanes has heaped the pressure on the Bulls and Lions ahead of their respective round 12 clashes, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The Bulls were the biggest losers in round 11, at least as far as the race for South African playoff places are concerned. The Pretoria-based franchise failed to obtain a single log point in their 23-6 defeat to the Brumbies in Canberra.
That outcome would have pleased the Stormers and Lions, who both enjoyed byes recently, as well as the Sharks. The Bulls continue to trail the Stormers by one log point in the Africa 1 conference. Following the result in Durban, the Sharks are only two log points behind the Bulls in the South African group.
The battle for the third qualifying position will intensify in the lead-up to the June break. The Sharks need to make the most of the momentum obtained from the victory over the Hurricanes. The Bulls have to bounce back in their final tour match, and then bank a win or two upon their return to South Africa.
The Sharks will play the Jaguares in Buenos Aires in round 12, and host the Kings in round 13. The pressure is still on the Sharks to win those matches if one remembers that their next bye is scheduled for round 14.
What will help the Sharks’ ambition to climb the South African group ladder is the Bulls’ schedule over the next three weeks. The Bulls will tackle the Waratahs in Sydney in round 12. They will then host the Stormers and Lions on successive weekends.
In one sense, it could be seen as a great opportunity. If the Bulls manage to stun the Waratahs and then down the Stormers and Lions in Pretoria, they may finish this part of the season at the top of the Africa 1 conference and the South African group.
That said, their schedule is tougher than that of the Sharks and the other major South African contenders. The Sharks may be exhausted following four consecutive matches against New Zealand opposition. However, they will be favourites to beat the Jaguares, who have battled for results in their debut Super Rugby season, and the Kings. Indeed, the latter game represents a chance to claim a bonus-point win.
The pressure is also on the Lions to maintain their advantage over the Sharks in Africa 2. Johan Ackermann’s charges have had two weeks to reflect on the 50-17 loss to the Hurricanes. They should be determined to beat the Blues in Johannesburg. They will face the Jaguares at home and the Bulls away thereafter.
The Stormers are still in a comfortable position. They are coming off a loss to the Waratahs in round 10, but will have the opportunity to bounce back in a match against the Sunwolves in Singapore. They should prioritise the derby at Loftus Versfeld. The subsequent clash against the Cheetahs at Newlands won’t demand as much of their skill and resolve.
The Cheetahs will host the Kings in Bloemfontein in the next round. It’s a massive match for the two minnow teams.
The Cheetahs lost all three of their matches in Australia, and have not beaten a South African opponent in 2016. The Kings will be chasing a first-ever win against a South African team.
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