Super 14: Sharks could yet end up in second position

2008-05-16 00:00

DICK Muir’s days as the Sharks head coach could end against the Chiefs at King’s Park in Durban tonight, but the former Springbok centre refuses to contemplate failure and is excited by the challenge of his team charging from behind to secure a semi-final berth.

Muir surprised many by swapping his high profile job with the Sharks for a position of an assistant with the Springboks. But the former Springbok centre has always been his own man, never shy to shirk a challenge.

He has one today, as the Sharks attempt to clamber up the log from sixth spot to secure a top four finish.

With the Crusaders sitting pretty at the top, the Hurricanes, Blues, Waratahs, Stormers and Sharks are involved in a dogfight for the remaining three places.

The Blues (now 40 points), with a narrow win over the Hurricanes (41 points) yesterday, did both the Sharks and the Stormers a favour. Both South African teams will now make the semi-finals if they achieve a bonus point win today to go to 42 points. They could even finish second and third if the Waratahs (39 points) fail to beat the Reds in Brisbane.

“The teams that can adapt best to changing circumstances this weekend will progress,”said Muir yesterday.

The key, says the Sharks coach, is flexibility. Other results, in Brisbane (Reds vs Waratahs) and Ellis Park (Lions vs Stormers), today might also work in their favour, but the Sharks now know for certain they will play in the semi-final if they pick up a bonus point win (five points) today.

Indeed, the Sharks could even end up vying with the Stormers for second place, and a home semi-final, if the Waratahs, presently on 39 points, lose to the Reds.

Muir said that the advantage of playing the final game of the league competition, while still being in semi-final contention, was massive. “We know what we have to do and it will become even clearer by kick-off.”

The Sharks are level with the Stormers on log points and, on points difference, trail the Cape Town franchise by nine. “Two years ago, we had already packed for the semi-final overseas and the Bulls hammered the Stormers (43-10) at Newlands to overtake us. And last year, the Bulls needed over 70 points to qualify and thrashed the Reds (92-3).

“At least this time we can have a say and we must grab the chance.”

Muir said that the match plan would be put on hold until they have seen what impact the other games have on the log standings. “That will determine how we approach the game. We will have to be flexible.”

The irony is that if the Sharks do have to play an extravagant, open game to chase down the Stormers’ points differential, it will play into the hands of the Chiefs. The New Zealand outfit enjoy a loose, fluid contest with little structure, which brings their powerful broken-play runners into the game.

The Sharks would prefer to play the Chiefs around the set pieces, where they can place them under some pressure and contain their dangerous loose forwards and backs.

The Chiefs are seventh, on 34 points, and out of contention for the semi-finals and this suits the Sharks. Not only will it dull the Chiefs’ ambitions, but the New Zealand team might opt against risking two of their injured All Blacks, number eight Sione Lauaki and wing Sitiveni Sivivatu, in a game which is of academic interest only.

The Sharks are hoping to pick up where they left off against the Cheetahs last week, when two injury time tries gave them a win and five points.

Muir concedes that perhaps the Sharks have been too conservative early in the season, when they were inhibited by the high humidity and a wet ball and booted away to much possession. “Perhaps, if we had taken more risks in those early games, we would not now be here battling to make the semis.”

The physical approach and strong defence of Frans Steyn will be missed in midfield, but the Sharks still have the runners to play an expansive game.

Adrian Jacobs adds a spark in midfield, Ruan Pienaar is settling at flyhalf and number eight Ryan Kankowski, one of the most potent attackers in the Super 14, has made an impact in most games.

Captain Johann Muller said yesterday he was almost certain to be fit and he will lock the scrum with Steven Sykes.

It makes for a remarkable closing day of Super 14 rugby, a final round of endless permutations.

The Sharks could host a Super 14 semi-final if they win well and other results go in their favour; conversely, Muir’s team will still miss out on the play-offs if they only win with four log points and the Stormers and Waratahs pick up victories to join the Crusaders and Hurricanes in the last four.

It is still as close as that. Muir may still be clutching his stress ball in one hand today, but he might need a pocket calculator in the other.

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