Any celebrations in Durban brought about by the Sharks securing top spot on the Currie Cup log a week early were soon dashed by Free State’s bonus point win over the Lions. With the Blue Bulls dashing Western Province’s hopes of a possible first place finish should they win next weekend, the Cheetahs have now moved into very real contention for a home semi-final themselves.
More importantly, though, due to the Bulls’ failure to score a fourth try, the Cheetahs are now have an equivalent number of log points to the champions, while their vastly superior points difference makes it incredibly unlikely that the Bulls could possibly finish above them. Both sides face regulation five-point games in their final fixture next week, although the relative strengths of Griquas and the Leopards makes it unlikely that the Bulls will be able to beat the Kimberley team by a big enough margin to overtake the Free Staters on points difference.
With the four semi-finalists now decided – the Sharks, Western Province, Blue Bulls and Cheetahs are all now safely through – the Cheetahs can end no lower than third, meaning that the Sharks cannot draw them in the semi-final under any circumstances. This is indeed a blow, because when all teams are at full strength, the Cheetahs in Durban would be the draw that the Sharks would choose. Instead, they face a catch-22 situation in which they will play either the Bulls or Province in a fortnight’s time, with whichever team that is boosted by the return of a large number of Springbok players.
The fact that this weekend’s final round-robin game against Province cannot have any impact on the Sharks’ final log position opens up some interesting possibilities, however. While bonus points and the like can always come into the equation, it boils down to a relatively simple choice. If the Sharks beat Province, they will face the Capetonians again in the semifinal a week later, in Durban, since a defeat will consign Province to fourth spot on the log. Should Province win, they will host Free State in the other semi-final, leaving the Sharks to contend with the Bulls in Durban.
Certainly, if one thing is now clear, it’s that sending a weakened team down to Cape Town is most assuredly not in the Sharks’ interest. While much will no doubt be written and discussed about this during the week, I feel the Sharks best chances of progression to the final will involve beating Province at Newlands and then repeating that feat again in Durban a week later. Letting the Cheetahs and the Blue Bulls beat seven shades of crap out of each other in the other semi final seems a far saner way to deal with the challenge of actually lifting the cup two weeks later.Tweet