Sharks still in playoff hunt

The Bulls are under pressure to improve their shocking record Down Under following the Sharks’ big win against the Highlanders in Dunedin, writes JON CARDINELLI.

The Stormers and Lions remain at the top of their respective conferences. The Cape side was too strong for the Reds in Cape Town this past Saturday. Similarly, the Lions were a cut above the Kings in Port Elizabeth.

The Stormers are especially well placed after the win over the Reds. They will play the Waratahs at Newlands this coming Saturday. Following a bye, they will travel to Singapore to tackle the Sunwolves. The Stormers should win both matches.

The Lions will face the Hurricanes this coming weekend, before enjoying a bye in round 11. They have an opportunity to increase their lead over the Sharks in Africa 2 (which is currently five log points). They will need to pick up several big victories over the next few weeks if they’re going to pressure the Stormers for the top spot in the South African group.

The Bulls and the Sharks face a different sort of joust. Neither side has been particularly impressive over the course of the 2016 tournament. And yet both teams remain in contention for that third qualifying berth in the South African group. Whichever team occupies this position at the end of the conference stage will advance to the playoffs.

At a glance, the Bulls appear to be in a position of strength. The Sharks won in Dunedin this past Friday, and thus reduced the gap between themselves and the Bulls to a single point on the South African group log. Nevertheless, the Bulls remain in third place in the South African group, and have a game in hand over the Sharks.

However, the Bulls have it all to do over the next few weeks. They will commence their three-game tour to Australia with a match against the Force. Thereafter, they will battle the Brumbies and Waratahs.

The Bulls have been shocking tourists in recent years. They’ve lost their last 11 matches in Australasia. Their last win in Australia was in 2012.

The Sharks will be hoping that the Bulls’ losing streak in Australia continues. Two or three losses for the Bulls would certainly help the Sharks’ bid for a playoff place.

The Sharks have a tougher draw in the sense that they have to play the New Zealand franchises over the course of their campaign. They will face off against a red-hot Chiefs side in round 10.

Thereafter, they will look to take something out of the fixtures against the Hurricanes (home) and Jaguares (away). You would expect the Sharks to be too strong for the Kings in Durban. If the Sharks can win even two of those matches, and perhaps claim a couple of bonus points from the other fixtures, they could be in the qualifying berth when Super Rugby breaks for the June Tests.

The other South African sides will have more modest ambitions. The Cheetahs blew a great opportunity in Melbourne last Friday, and could struggle for the remainder of their tour to Australia. At the very least, the Cheetahs will be aiming to stay ahead of the Sunwolves. The Cheetahs are currently five log points ahead of the last-placed side in Africa 1.

The Kings will battle to avoid the wooden spoon, not just in Africa 2 but in the South African group too. A shock win over the Jaguares in Buenos Aires this coming weekend would help their cause. On the other hand, the Jaguares will be going all out in this fixture to secure a first Super Rugby win in Argentina.

Photo: Rob Jefferies/Getty Images

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