Johannesburg - Back-to-back slip-ups against local teams have cost the Sharks dearly in the closing stages of this year’s Super Rugby competition and if Jake White’s team are to win their first title they’re now going to have to do it the hard way.
The defeat suffered in Bloemfontein against the Cheetahs on Saturday, to go with the loss to the Stormers before the international break, means the Sharks can no longer finish in top spot on the points table. If the first-placed Waratahs win their remaining games, and White’s men do make the final, they’ll have to travel to Sydney for the match.
But that scenario is still some way off. The Sharks still have plenty to do to just host a home semi-final.
As things stand going into the last round of matches this coming weekend, the Waratahs lead with 53 points and cannot be overhauled. In second place are the Crusaders (46) and they’re followed by the Sharks, also 46. The other three play-off spots are occupied by the Highlanders (42), Hurricanes (41) and Brumbies (40), but none of them are assured of a place in the knockout games.
Hot on their heels are the Western Force (40), Chiefs (40) and Blues (36), who can still quality if they win this weekend and other teams lose. The only team to fall out of the running this last weekend were the Bulls, who suffered a slightly embarrassing 16-0 loss to the Stormers in Cape Town.
The Sharks though - South Africa’s only remaining hope of winning the title - have suffered the most in the last two rounds and right now appear to be heading for a home ‘quarter-final’, should they win against the Stormers in Cape Town this weekend. They could still end second should the Crusaders come unstuck, but it seems unlikely at this stage of the competition, with the Highlanders not nearly as effective as they were earlier in the year. Also, the Highlanders will be reeling after copping a big hiding from the Waratahs on Sunday.
The big danger facing White’s men is that they fail to pick up a point at Newlands - against a Stormers team which has looked impressive in the latter half of the competition - and the likes of the Highlanders and Hurricanes win with bonus points, leaving the Sharks having to travel for the ‘quarter-finals’.
There can be little doubt the Stormers are the form team in South Africa at the moment. Their 16-0 win was the fourth clean sheet in a local derby. Just before the June break they also kept the Cheetahs pointless, winning 33-0. The other times a side has failed to score a point in a South African derby were in 1999 when the Sharks beat the Bulls 29-0, while the team from Pretoria beat the Kings 34-0 last year.
In total it was the sixth time a South African team were kept pointless in Super Rugby and the third time the Bulls got zero. The Pretorians lost 27-0 to the Crusaders in Timaru in 2011 and the Stormers lost 22-0 to the Crusaders in Cape Town in 2008.
Meanwhile, the Lions have registered their best season in years after recording a sixth win of their campaign, a 34-17 win over the Rebels last Friday. They end their challenge with a match against the Cheetahs in Joburg this coming weekend.
Waratahs 44, Highlanders 16; Cheetahs 27, Sharks 20; Stormers 16, Bulls 0; Force 30, Reds 20; Crusaders 21, Blues 13; Lions 34, Rebels 17; Chiefs 24, Hurricanes 16
Friday: Blues v Chiefs; Brumbies v Force; Bulls v Rebels
Saturday: Crusaders v Highlanders; Reds v Waratahs; Lions v Cheetahs; Stormers v Sharks