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The Sharks and Bulls have the opportunity to book their place alongside the Stormers in the knockout stage of the competition at this weekend’s final round of pool action.
Of the three South African sides, only the Stormers are guaranteed their place in the final series.
The skirmish for fifth and sixth is going to be intriguing. While nothing can be taken for granted, if the Sharks can replicate the attitude and execution that they displayed against the Bulls at the weekend, the Durban side will surely secure a bonus-point win over the Cheetahs at Kings Park this Saturday (5.05pm).
Earlier in the day, one would expect the Brumbies to beat the Blues in Canberra and the Crusaders to overcome the Force in Christchurch, to finish third and fourth respectively.
That means the team that finishes sixth will most likely travel to Australia to face the Brumbies in a “quarter-final” qualifier, while the fifth-place side would probably have to make the demanding journey to New Zealand’s South Island to face the Crusaders.
Last year the Sharks found out how difficult that trip is when they were comprehensively defeated by the Crusaders in Nelson, while they have actually already beaten the Brumbies in Canberra this year.
So, if the Sharks do the business against the Cheetahs to book their place in the top six, they may well be quietly hoping that the Bulls in fact do enough to go back into fifth position when they play the Lions in the final pool game.
However, one also shouldn’t forget that the Reds – who play the Waratahs in Brisbane – and Hurricanes are just one log point behind the Sharks, and so the KZN side will know that they cannot afford to slip up against the Cheetahs. Beneficially, though, the Sharks play after both of their nearest rivals on the log and so they will know what is required before kick-off, as will the Bulls.
So there is certainly still plenty to play for in the final round of pool fixtures, and perhaps Sharks coach John Plumtree summed it up best when he said yesterday: “It’s going to be a nerve-wracking week, that’s for sure.”