The Sharks have a great opportunity this Saturday to bag maximum points and keep the pressure on the Waratahs and Chiefs, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The Sharks are one of four sides to boast an unbeaten run in this year's competition. Predictably, two of the remaining three top their respective conferences (the Waratahs and Chiefs), while the Rebels have won the only game they've played to date.
A strong start is imperative for teams aiming to top their conference and, indeed, the overall log. Following a strong start, consistency is crucial.
The past three Vodacom Super Rugby finals were won by the team hosting the final. All three earned the right to host a final by amassing the necessary log points during the league stage.
The Reds topped the log in 2011, and went on to beat the Crusaders in the decider. The Chiefs finished second in the league in 2012, and first in 2013. They too reaped the benefits of home advantage in those two finals.
This has to be the objective for a Sharks team bent on lifting the Super Rugby trophy in 2014. They've been talked up by everybody including their coach, Jake White, and have backed that up in their first two games as far as results are concerned. They will need to keep walking the walk if they hope to finish in the top two and thus earn the right to host a possible final.
While their record reads played two, won two, they are yet to make any big statements. Home wins against weak Bulls and Hurricanes sides were expected, but both of those performances lacked consistency. They will need to kick on from here if they hope to challenge the better teams in later rounds.
That said, a statement could be made this Saturday via a bonus-point win against the Lions. The Johannesburg side has surprised with two wins from three matches, but the fact remains that they are a limited team who will in all likelihood finish in the bottom third of the table.
In their comeback season to Super Rugby, the Lions are effectively in the same position as the Southern Kings of 2013. Every team will be targeting a game against the Lions as an opportunity to bank five log points. And playing at home, the Sharks will surely want to realise this ambition.
The Lions have shown through their recent performances that they will punish any opponent who fails to respect their physicality and structures. The Cheetahs lost to the Lions in the first round when they underestimated the Gauteng side's defence, and the Stormers were also undone when they moved away from a more territorial game and ran from deep.
The Sharks can't afford to make the same mistakes. A loss to the Lions at this point might not derail their campaign, but it would mark a missed opportunity in terms of their top-two ambitions.
The Hurricanes pushed the Sharks hard in the most recent match at Kings Park, and managed to exploit a weakness at the breakdown. While the Sharks were dominant at the scrum, their ball-protection at the tackle was poor. This was also apparent in their first match of the season against the Bulls.
Word from Johannesburg is that Lions flanker Derick Minnie should be fit for Saturday's clash in Durban. The Lions have impressed at the collisions in the past three weeks, and having Minnie back in the mix will sharpen their threat at the breakdown.
Minnie and company have the ability to force turnovers and in some instances penalties. And in Marnitz Boshoff, the Lions have a deadly accurate goal-kicker who will make the Sharks pay for any indiscipline.
The Sharks halfbacks will have a role to play in a clash of this nature, but the hosts will battle if their heavies don't produce a dominant and, more importantly, accurate display at the breakdown. This will determine not only whether the Sharks win, but whether they obtain the four-try bonus point.
They must play for field position and protect the ball at the ruck. Once they have built up the necessary scoreboard pressure, they must ram the advantage home.
The Lions will be primed for the fight now that Minnie is back, but this is nevertheless a game the Sharks should expect to win. And if they truly are the championship team that many, including their coach, believe them to be, then they must substantiate that statement by banking maximum log points.
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