Play-offs are way off for Sharks on current form

2010-04-06 00:00

ONLY 12 points separate the Super 14 leaders Waratahs from the Sharks, but the congestion in the middle of the log seems certain to deny John Smit’s team any chance of reaching the top four and the play-offs.

The Sharks’ three successive wins have taken them to 16 points on the log from eight games. But they are still 10th on the log and a bunch of teams in mid-table, most with a game in hand, are far better placed to reach the semi-finals.

The Sharks will be on their bye this weekend and then have games against the Lions (Ellis Park), the Blues (Durban), the Bulls (Loftus) and the Stormers and the Force (both in Durban) over the next five weekends to end their round robin season.

At the very least the Sharks will need 40 log points to qualify for the semi-finals and that means winning all five of their remaining games with bonus points.

In 2006, the first year of the Super 14, the fourth-placed team on the log, the Bulls, had 38 points and beat off the Sharks, also 38, on points difference. The Blues were fourth on 42 points in 2007, and in 2008 and 2009, the Hurricanes and Crusaders were the last semi-finalists and needed 41 log points to reach the play-offs.

On the evidence from the Sharks so far this season — they have yet to score a bonus point for four tries — and with a backline which lacks pace, penetration and accuracy, it seems only mathematically possible, and no more, to reach 40 points.

The Sharks players were clearly aware of the importance of bonus points on Saturday as they made a desperate attempt to secure a fourth try in the closing minute of their game against the Reds.

The Sharks were ahead 30-28 when the penalty was awarded 35 metres out with two minutes remaining. A brief team meeting was held and resulted in the Sharks setting up an attacking lineout five metres from the Reds’ line.

The Sharks were at that stage missing their lineout specialist Alistair Hargreaves, who had left the field injured, but they still fancied their chances of either driving over for a try, as they had done earlier in the half, or tying up possession for the final minute of play.

The other consideration was that if they had kicked the penalty for a five-point lead, the Reds would have had time to re-start play and then try and win possession in the Sharks’ half from the kick-off.

Plumtree did not appear entirely happy with the decision.

“It was a really big call, not to kick the penalty,” said coach John Plumtree after the match, “and I admire their ambition in looking for a bonus point in the dying moments of a tough game. But had the Reds scored at the end, I would have been as sick as a parrot,” he added.

And Plumtree’s worst fears were almost realised. For just about the first time in the match, a Sharks lineout went astray and the Reds immediately attacked.

They were twice awarded penalties as they advanced upfield before wing Digby Ioane burst through the middle and ran 60 metres before being dragged down by Sharks flank Jacques Botes. Wing Odwa Ndungane won the ball at the break down and the Sharks scrambled the ball into touch for the win.

The Reds’ coaching staff and captain Will Genia were generous in accepting defeat, and had no complaints about New Zealand referee Chris Pollock. But the Brisbane daily newspaper did and the Courier Mail yesterday claimed that Pollock had “frozen on awarding a last-second penalty” in front of the Sharks’ posts as Botes tackled Ioane.

“The Sharks defence [Botes] reeled in Ioane 20 metres short of the tryline but could have been penalised in any number of ways for zealously trying to shut down the last play of a see-sawing thriller.

“The tackler held on to Ioane over-long without rolling away and when the ball was ripped away it appeared to be seized by a Sharks player [Ndungane] in an off-side position.”

The Mail did admit that Pollock had also erred “in not ruling a forward pass on the pop ball that man-of-the-match Quade Cooper served to Will Chambers for his second try just after half-time.”

It was as close as that.

The Sharks now have the week off to recover from eight successive weekends of Super 14 rugby and the long tour Down Under.

The other four South African franchises all face exceptionally tough games this weekend. The champion Bulls, beaten by the Blues at the weekend, take on the Chiefs in Hamilton on Friday (9.35 am) and will again be tested.

On Saturday, the Blues will fancy their chances against the Stormers (7.35 am) at Eden Park in Auckland, the Brumbies are heavily favoured to down the badly wounded Cheetahs in Canberra (11:40), and the Lions, looking for their first win, meet the enterprising Reds at Ellis Park (19:10).

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