Well guys – it’s going to be a frustrating weekend for Sharks fans as we see our team inevitably slip down the log, while our weary players put their feet up and enjoy the long-overdue bye. What are the best and worst-case outcomes for us? Let’s have a look.
We need to remember that the Sharks do have a relatively benign run-in to the end of the round-robin, with three more home games to come. Two of those games are against supposedly weaker opposition (the Highlanders and out-of-form Waratahs) but the Sharks recent form against fancied and unfancied sides alike leaves no room for complacency. The final round-robin match between the Sharks and the Bulls, far from being the dog-fight for a first place finish that we all thought it would be, now looks like it might represent the Sharks last chance to make the semis at all. That’s in the future, though and, for the Sharks to progress, they simply have to win their next three matches and win them well.
The Sharks are currently in second place, equal on log points but behind on points difference to the Chiefs, crucially, the Hamilton outfit have also played one fewer game, as have no less than five other teams, all of whom could leapfrog the Sharks this weekend. The situation is not quite as dire as it would at first seem, though, since many of the contenders still have matches against other teams in a similar log position. It’s going to be a mad scramble for those four golden tickets, with only the narrowest of margins separating first from fourth – and fourth from fifth.
The key clash of the round is going to take place in Pretoria, with the Bulls and Chiefs very evenly-matched in terms of log points. Each side has a six-from-nine record, although the Chiefs have two bonus points more than the Bulls do. An away win would cement top spot for them and give them a very handy cushion at the top of the table. They still have to face the Stormers away and Brumbies at home, neither of which should trouble them overly. It’s the derby sandwiched in-between, against the Hurricanes, that could well define their final log position. The Bulls have it a little easier once they’ve played the Chiefs. They have the Force and Cheetahs at home, before heading to Durban to play the Sharks. My gut-feel is that whoever wins in Pretoria on Saturday will finish in top spot. For both sides, there is still the potential to slip up in the local derbies ahead, but I feel Saturday’s win will provide the momentum needed to go unbeaten for the next three rounds. For the Sharks, it will actually be better if the Chiefs win, because otherwise the Bulls will move ahead of them (leaving the Sharks behind both). Furthermore, if the Bulls come to Durban to play for top spot, I think they will have the motivation needed to beat the Sharks.
The Hurricanes and Blues are the other teams most likely to benefit at the Sharks expense this weekend. The former is at home to the Brumbies, while the Aucklanders take on a team from the other end of the colour spectrum, the woeful Reds. Now, while the Brumbies, fired up enough by the tragic loss of their pal Shawn Mackay to put down the bottle until the end of the tournament, can definitely do a number on at least one big team in the next few weeks, I don’t see either the Canes or the Blues losing to Australian opposition this week – not at home anyway. Both of these sides have a perilous run-in, with a match against each other thrown in, as well as some other clashes against class opposition thrown in. It will take a pretty extraordinary set of results for both to end up going through to the semis at the expense of the Sharks, but who knows what strange plans might be cooked up down in Long White Cloud land…
The Crusaders and (to a lesser extent) the Brumbies are the only other sides that can potentially unseat the Sharks. The Saders will stuff the Cheetahs and it will come down to points difference to determine whether they too move ahead of our boys. The Brumbies need maximum points from all their remaining games, so if they lose the Hurricanes this weekend, as I fear they will, it will be all over red rover for them.
So, assuming the Bullies squeak a close game against the Chiefs and the rest of the matches go according to plan, here’s what the log could look like once all teams are again even in terms of games played:
1 Bulls 33
2 Hurricanes 33
3 Blues 33
4 Chiefs 32
5 Sharks 31
6 Crusaders 31
7 Waratahs 28
8 Force 28
9 Brumbies 27
10 Highlanders 26