While the Sharks have blown their table-topping chances, they can still secure a home semi-final with a big win over the Stormers on Saturday, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The Sharks will regret the loss to the Highlanders at Kings Park earlier in the season. They will regret the defeat to the Stormers in Durban just a week before the June break. What may hurt the most, however, is the recent humiliation in Bloemfontein. The loss to the Cheetahs has not only dented their semi-final ambitions, but their pride as well.
Going into that clash, the Sharks still had a shot at topping the overall Vodacom Super Rugby log. But with the defeat in Bloemfontein, they have allowed the Waratahs to race clear. The Waratahs took an unassailable lead at the top of the table when they beat the Highlanders in Sydney on Sunday.
The Sharks managed to earn a losing bonus point in Bloemfontein, but it was not enough to prevent them dropping down and out of the top two. The Crusaders and Sharks have scored the same number of log points and victories, although it is the Cantabrians who boast a points differential that is currently eight better than that of the Sharks.
Jake White's charges will lament those losses to the Highlanders and Stormers. They will also regret the defeat to the Cheetahs. Even if they were to secure a home semi-final and win through to the decider, they may have to travel to Sydney for a battle against the Waratahs. It's a tall order considering the Australian conference champions haven't lost in the New South Wales stronghold in 2014.
But to talk of such scenarios is premature. Indeed, the Sharks would do well to finish in the top two from here.
The Crusaders will play the Highlanders on Saturday in a match that will determine the winner of the New Zealand conference. The outcome of this game will give the Sharks a clear indication of what they need to do in their final league match against the Stormers.
The Sharks need the Highlanders to win in Christchurch. Even if the Crusaders were to bag a couple of losing bonus points (one for finishing within seven of the opposition, and one for four tries), it still wouldn't be enough to guarantee the Cantabrians a place in the top two. If the Crusaders lose, or lose with one or two bonus points, this means the Sharks will simply need a win against the Stormers to secure a home semi-final.
But the odds are against the Highlanders knocking over the Crusaders at this point of the competition. The Crusaders recently welcomed back key All Blacks Kieran Read and Dan Carter, and will be playing in Christchurch. It's more likely that the Crusaders will prevail, and if they score a bonus-point victory, the Sharks will have a mountain to climb in Cape Town.
Five log points will see the Crusaders finishing on 51. What could be just as crucial as the bonus point in Christchurch this Saturday is the margin of victory. The Crusaders will want to build on the eight-point advantage they currently enjoy over the Sharks.
The Stormers have been disappointing this season, and were out of the play-off race by the time the competition broke for the June Tests. And yet, they have improved in recent rounds, as was witnessed with their big win against the Sharks in Durban.
Their attack has improved, but then so to has their defence. In the two most recent games at Newlands, the Stormers beat the Cheetahs 33-0, and the Bulls 16-0.
They have nothing to play for but pride this week. It's not an ideal situation for South African rugby, but the Stormers are well-placed to deny the Republic's lone play-off representative a home semi-final.
If the Crusaders win big in Christchurch, the Sharks will have no choice but to push for an even bigger victory in Cape Town. It's not going to be easy given the Stormers' recent form, and the fact that the foul Cape weather will inhibit an all-out attacking approach.
But the Sharks have plenty to play for. A big win this week will ensure that they receive a rest during the qualifying play-offs. It will also ensure that they go into the semi-finals with a slim chance of hosting the decider itself.
It will be interesting to see how they respond. They were poor in Bloemfontein last week, but have shown over the course of the season, particularly with that history-making performance against the Crusaders in Christchurch, that they have what it takes to win this competition. They will need to show those championship qualities at Newlands this Saturday.
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