DURBAN – There are five more games left for the Sharks to move themselves into a position where they can make the playoffs in a conference that has become very tight after last weekend’s action.
The Bulls, with their win over the Sharks, are on 24 points, as are the Jaguares who had a bye last week. The Sharks, who pinched a bonus point at Loftus, come in with the same amount of points.
But it is not only the South African conference that needs to be watched, it is also the Australian one, for these teams gunning for a quarter-final.
The way the competition works - now back to 15 teams - is that the winners of each of the three conferences get a home quarter-final, regardless of the total amount of points they have accumulated. Then, the next best team that is not top of a conference, in terms of points, takes the final home quarter-final.
That means there are five so-called wildcard spots which transcend conferences. The Lions currently top the South African conference, but their recent form has seen them come into range of almost any side below them.
So, of course, first prize for the Sharks is to top the South African log, but they do have to do well against the Chiefs, Jaguares twice, Stormers and Lions before the regular season comes to an end.
Second prize then is to rack up enough points to make it into one of those five wildcard spots. As it stands, the Sharks and Bulls both with 24 points, and the same points-difference, are in 10th and 11th on the overall log and not in the wildcard spots. However, the Jaguares are, with their 24 points and better points-difference.
Next up is the Rebels, on 25 points, before the gap broadens with the Chiefs on 31.
What the race for wildcard spots proves is that literally every game the Sharks play leading up to the playoffs is vital, not only for the points they will collect, but because of the points they can deny their opponents.
The Chiefs are in town this weekend, and if the Sharks can beat them - say with a bonus point as well - then the Durban-based team are suddenly two points behind a team currently sixth on the log.
But the pressure continues all the way to that final game at Kings Park against the Jaguares. The Sharks have a chance to dent the Argentine charge twice, home and away. They also can pile some more misery on the Lions as they look to replace the Johannesburg-based team at the summit of the SA conference; even the Stormers, who are all but out of the race, become important as they face the Sharks at Newlands.
The actual permutations are too tough to call with so many teams closely matched on the log - across the conferences. But what is clear is that the Sharks need to win at the very worst four out of their next five games.
Despite coming off a loss - a second of the season against the Bulls - the Sharks will not be too down in the dumps as they do enjoy a bit of a Kiwi battle. They also have three of their remaining games at home, against the Chiefs, Jaguares, and Lions, which should be in their favour.
That being said, the Durban-based outfit are also seemingly just as happy to play away, and far away at that matter. Should they creep into the playoffs via the wildcard, there is a big chance that their quarter-final will be in New Zealand, and potentially against the missing Kiwi piece of the puzzle, the Crusaders.
If the Sharks can brush aside the Chiefs in the same manner as they did the Blues and Highlanders, they would be welcoming that challenge and fancy themselves for a semi-final spot - but there is a lot of rugby to come before even thinking of such things.