Cape Town – There can be little doubt now … the Sharks of 2016 are a genuinely revitalised and ambitious bunch.
Saturday’s almost Durban hall-of-fame-worthy 18-13 derby victory over the Stormers at their Newlands stronghold left them the lone unbeaten South African team after three rounds of Super Rugby, and sharing with the Brumbies the only 100 percent win record across the competition.
Just over a year ago, they were humiliated at scrum-time, particularly, in a comprehensive 29-13 reverse to the same foes in the shadow of Table Mountain and it somehow set the tone for a desperately innocuous campaign in general by them.
Not only did the boot transfer to the other foot result-wise this time at the grand old stadium, but they also wiped out memories of that day by crucially bossing that form of set-piece in a dazzling turnaround.
Gary Gold and his charges had done their homework shrewdly in other areas as well – like throwing often and accurately to the back of the lineout and in doing so, as former Springbok coach Nick Mallett pointed out in the SuperSport studio, nullifying the poaching menace of Eben Etzebeth.
As much as anything, though, it was a triumph of the collective heart, and that fact alone somehow made it seem just about acceptable that they got the rub of the officialdom green -- let’s face it, it happens.
The home side will be left to rue an arguably unjust penalty try against them in the 45th minute when Siya Kolisi was deemed to have kicked the ball out of scrumhalf Cobus Reinach’s hands next to the posts and yellow-carded into the costly bargain; replays indicated that the flanker’s actions had not been deliberate.
This uncompromising thriller could have gone the other way, such was the manner the Stormers dominated possession and territory for significant periods despite their unexpected set-piece angst.
But they continue to lack real thrust and unpredictability in their backline play so there must have been occasions when their sometimes more than equalled but always honest-grafting forwards cursed the repeated inability to turn rosy field position into points.
Kudos also to an unbudging and supremely organised Sharks defence, which was one area last season where they fell into a perplexing lethargy and occasional ineptitude.
The tirelessness of senior figures like Bok flank Marcell Coetzee (official player of the match) in that department, whether in tackling full-bloodedly or slowing down opposition ball on the deck and getting under the skins of co-international heavyweights like Schalk Burger and Etzebeth, acted as an inspiration to the entire team.
Do not under-estimate the importance of the Sharks’ three-wins start to the season: we always knew they had a stinker of an itinerary this year and there are plenty of stiff hurdles still ahead, but this front-end head of steam in ordinary season could prove manna in the quest for KO-phase qualification.
Their “reward” for nicking the Newlands spoils after a physically punishing affair is a mere six-day turnaround to another derby against the Bulls – coming off a bye, by sharp contrast -- at Loftus on Friday night.
But the Sharks do retain healthy squad depth in many positions and that, coupled with the automatic mental tonic that habitual winning brings, may be enough to stretch their hot streak even further.
As for the Stormers, they continue to head the not exactly star-studded Africa Conference 1, banked a losing bonus point, and still seem pretty unlikely to surrender that top-dog status even with so many matches yet to go.
That said, their attempt at a swift bounce-back is no doddle: another home date with the menacing Brumbies on Saturday, which stirs uncomfortable memories of their 39-19 disposal – not to mention sobering rugby lesson -- at that team’s hands in a qualifier for the semis at the same ground last season.
Have the Stormers progressed enough since then to be able to exact revenge? I’d say the jury’s out.
Meanwhile in Africa Conference 2, the Sharks now command a four-point lead over the Lions after their Capetonian success and the Highvelders’ 34-15 loss to the Highlanders in Dunedin.
It was no disgrace for Warren Whiteley and company, who return to South Africa – and a meeting with the Cheetahs – knowing that their main overseas tour has been completed with two wins from three.
Clearly the pair of domestic clashes between the two sides (April 9, Durban, and July 2, Johannesburg) are going to be key, enticing pointers to who eventually may top the group …
Next weekend’s fixtures (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):
Friday: Hurricanes v Force, 08:35; Waratahs v Highlanders, 10:45; Bulls v Sharks, 19:00. Saturday: Sunwolves v Rebels, 06:15; Crusaders v Kings, 08:35; Reds v Blues, 10:45; Lions v Cheetahs, 17:05; Stormers v Brumbies, 19:15; Jaguares v Chiefs, 23:40.
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