Sharks ready to net a semi-final at home in Durban

2014-07-01 00:00

CAPE TOWN — Win their remaining two matches, without even the need for a bonus point either time, and the Sharks will be guaranteed the luxury of a Super Rugby 2014 home semi-final at the very least.

Without even playing last weekend, when the Australasian teams played a curtailed round without any South African involvement, Jake White’s charges moved a valuable step closer to ensuring that attractive berth because of the Crusaders’ 16-9 loss to the Hurricanes in Wellington.

What that meant is the Sharks — currently lying second, know a further eight points — in other words, standard away victories over the Cheetahs and Stormers respectively — will take their total to 53. This will place the Sharks out of reach of both nearest challengers the ’Saders and the Highlanders, who can only get to a maximum of 52 — and only one of that New Zealand pair can reach the tally.

However, neither the Cheetahs nor the Stormers will be pushovers, given the brutality and desperation that accompanies just about all SA derbies.

For the Cheetahs match in Bloemfontein on Saturday night, Sharks coach White also faces some difficult selection choices, given the high fatigue levels of a few of his Springbok pack members.

Nevertheless the Durban-based side must throw everything into eking out that precious brace of wins: a home semi also means the seriously welcome (at this stage of the season) luxury of a bye week ahead of the game.

The incentive obviously still flickers, too, of the Sharks topping the overall table to put them in the frame for a home final into the bargain.

But that prospect dipped at the weekend, when the in-form Waratahs, who have now won five on the trot, roared into top spot, three points clear of the Sharks after thrashing the local, injury-hit rivals the Brumbies with a bonus point in Sydney.

Although their captain Dave Dennis ruptured a cruciate ligament to be sidelined for the next few months, a cruelly untimely development for the NSW outfit, the ’Tahs can facilitate the likelihood of a home showpiece by winning (also without the need for bonus points) both remaining ordinary-season clashes at home to the Highlanders and away to the Reds respectively.

As with the Sharks’ own run-in, neither outcome can be taken for granted but smart money suggests they will probably do it.

So the South African pace-setters, already confirmed as domestic conference winners, have to set as a priority ensuring they don’t end in the greatly less favourable third spot on the overall table, which means an extra game in the finals series and guaranteed overseas travel for the semi if they get there.

That could feasibly yet happen if the Sharks slip just once in the next fortnight, because it potentially opens the gate for the Crusaders or Highlanders to bounce them into third even if it must be taken into account that those two play each other in the last round.

The Sharks would not feel too massively daunted by the possibility that they have to go to Sydney for a once-off final challenge straight off a home semi, even if history reminds that no team have yet crossed the Indian Ocean to or from South Africa to win a final.

They do boast the Waratahs’ scalp in ordinary season this year, a convincing 32-10 triumph at King’s Park in late March.

Meanwhile the Bulls, currently lying a distant 10th overall, perhaps retain just the very tiniest of mathematical chances that they could yet slip into the top six for the play-offs.

But it is an interesting thought nevertheless that if three results elsewhere in the next round over the coming weekend were to go their way, and they can wallop the Stormers at Newlands with a bonus point, the Loftus crew could climb to as high as seventh — just one spot out of the finals series places with one further round to go.

This weekend’s matches:

(Home teams first, all kick-offs SA time.)

Friday: Chiefs v Hurricanes, 09:35; Lions v Rebels, 19:10.

Saturday: Crusaders v Blues, 09:35; Force v Reds, 11:40; Stormers v Bulls, 17:05; Cheetahs v Sharks, 19:10. Sunday: Waratahs v Highlanders, 08:05.

Bye: Brumbies.

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