Three wins in the next three weeks could set the Sharks up for a successful tour to Australasia and strengthen their bid for a top-two finish, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The Sharks are presently at the top of the Vodacom Super Rugby standings. They've played six games while the second-placed Brumbies have played seven, and are three log points clear of the third-placed Chiefs.
They are far and away the best South African team in the tournament, and this is confirmed by their standing in the local conference. Their closest rivals in this respect are the Bulls, although the men from Pretoria have played one more game and still trail by six log points. That gap will increase over the next few weeks as the injury-hit Bulls continue to struggle Down Under.
The Sharks are well placed, but now is not the time to be complacent. Director of rugby Jake White has made all the right noises in the press this week, but it's more important that his charges put those words into action when they play the Lions in Johannesburg.
The Lions rattled the Sharks in the previous match between these two sides at Kings Park. The Sharks cannot afford to take them lightly, and will know that Lions flyhalf Marnitz Boshoff will punish any transgressions and mistakes with that accurate goal-kicking boot.
That said, the Sharks should beat the Lions this week. They should defeat the Cheetahs next Saturday and the Highlanders the Saturday after. That will place them in a commanding position at the top of the log when they travel to Australia and New Zealand for a four-match tour.
This year's Super Rugby competition has already witnessed a number of upsets, and the Sharks finished on the wrong side of the scoreline when they played the less-fancied Bulls at Loftus Versfeld earlier in the season. They will need to be more disciplined and focused when they travel to Ellis Park this Saturday. It's a game that they are expected to win, but it's also a game they need to win in the context of their season. The pressure is on.
The Sharks are coming off a bye. White has spoken about the team being mentally refreshed, and focused on the next eight weeks before the break for the June Tests. Those matches can be broken into three segments: namely the three games in South Africa over the next three weeks, the four games in Australasia, and the game against the Stormers that will take place immediately after the tour.
It's important that the Sharks build some momentum before that tour, from the first game after the bye.
Should they succeed in winning all three matches, they will be in a fantastic position when they tour Australia and New Zealand. The Sharks will play the Rebels, Brumbies, Crusaders and Blues on consecutive weekends. They would have felt confident about winning at least three of those games before the 2014 season commenced, and going by the current form of these sides, a record of four wins could be within their reach.
However, much depends on what transpires over the next few weeks. It's important that the Sharks win all three games, but they will need some luck with regards to injuries.
White may also need to consider managing his squad accordingly. Chiefs coach Dave Rennie rotated his squad on the defending champs' recent tour to South Africa, and his side came away with six out of a possible 10 log points. I wouldn't be surprised to see White following suit at some stage over the next eight weeks.
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