The Sharks are heading into potentially very dangerous territory this weekend when they play the Blue Bulls at Loftus – and strangeley enough, the danger has very little to do with the team that they will face on the park.
The real danger stems from the fact that, no matter what the result is in this or any other match, the Sharks will still be in top spot at the end of the round. Their 7-point gap over Western Province cannot be overtaken within a single round and the inevitable sense of complacency that might just creep into the minds of the Sharks squad as a result is a real danger. This weekend is not so much about the consequences of losing at Loftus. It is about the massive opportunities that a win will open up.
We all know that the Sharks look very strong right now, while the Bulls and more recently Province have struggled. The teams who contested the Super 14 final have had to give up a plethora of quality players to the national side and it’s no secret that, come play-off tie, their squads will be bolstered considerably. For the Sharks, the challenge is to press home their advantage as hard as they can while they have the opportunity, in order to contest that inevitable play-off on the most favourable terms possible. While the first goal will be to secure home ground advantage for themselves by virtue of a first-place finish, the prospect of seeing the Bulls have to travel or, better still, miss out on the play-offs altogether is enticing. The latter is, though, far more possible than any of us may have dared hope. As long as the Sharks win at Loftus – and win well.
The Blue Bulls have a pretty ugly set of games coming up. After this weekend’s challenge, they need to travel to Bloemfontein, before taking on the Lions at Loftus in one of those derby games that could see anything happen. A tricky trip to Kimberley and a home game against a Province side who, by that stage, may similarly be playing for their lives leave the Bulls with their away game against the Leopards as the only one they can be assured of winning. The Sharks need to really put the boot in this weekend and hope that the Cheetahs can do something similar in the next round. That would be three losses in a row for the Bulls and a statistic of 4 wins from their first 11 games, leaving them with a mountain to climb in order to secure a play-off berth. A further loss to any of the Lions, Province or Griquas might just knock them out of contention altogether.
The Sharks need to have a sober look at their own fixture list, though, with most of the big guns still to be faced away from home. The trip to Nelspruit will be tough, but manageable, but it’s the away fixture against the Lions that represents the biggest potential banana peel – we don’t have a great record in Joburg in the Currie Cup. The Cheetahs at home should be manageable, as should the Leopards and should things go our way, we may just be able to go into the final game – an away fixture at Newlands – able to engineer a result that gives us our pick of opponents in the semi-finals. Once again, though, in order for the Sharks to have that sort of luxury by the time Province and the Bulls have their best players back, we need to make sure we keep our foot firmly on the gas now and pick up all the points that are on offer. While it’s a wonderful thing to have Beast and Bismarck with us, we also mustn’t forget that they will probably disappear from next week, to join the contracted Springbok group’s conditioning program.
Looking to this weekend’s game, though – and given that rugby matches are won or lost up-front – I feel the Sharks will need to play very poorly indeed to lose to the Bulls side that has been named. The Bulls simply do not have a counter for Bismarck du Plessis, Beast Mtawarira or Willem Alberts anywhere in their pack and if the Sharks stick to the asme game that has worked for them in the past few weeks, those key match-ups should definitely swing the game in their favour.Tweet