Super Rugby

SA conference: Gigantic swing toward Sharks

Cape Town - At least for the moment, the Stormers continue to hold South African bragging rights in Super Rugby 2020.

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They have a skin-of-the-teeth, one-point lead over the Sharks in the conference after five matches each and (now also increasingly tenuously) retain top spot overall.

But you might not have been inclined to believe that state of play had you only switched onto the tournament, belatedly, for this weekend's round.

The Capetonians were, frankly, diabolical virtually from start to finish as they were deservedly trounced 33-14 at home to the unsung Blues, their first setback of the season but a severe jolt to any title-hunting credentials from them.

It was a grim weekend for the SA challenge as a whole, given the Bulls' later 39-24 reverse to group foes and last year's beaten finalists the Jaguares at Loftus - the Argentineans importantly added a bonus point to their harvest - plus Friday's 29-17 defeat for the Lions at the hands of the previously winless Waratahs at Parramatta.

But that's where the Sharks come in ... as notable buck-the-trend customers.

Earlier on Saturday, they pluckily outlasted the Reds 33-23 in Brisbane, a result that meant they fly home jubilantly with a three-from-four record in their main, four-match overseas tour.

It was a terrific showing in a match that is so often historically a "graveyard" one for SA teams, as the closing fixture of the Australasian trek can prove a bridge too far both mentally and physically.

So Sean Everitt's charges are really now in a substantially better position, even if the table doesn't yet reflect it accurately, than their domestic coastal rivals.

The Sharks return to our shores emboldened further by the knowledge that they now have seven of 11 remaining matches in ordinary season at Kings Park, and only one further long-haul flight, when they tackle the Jaguares in Buenos Aires on May 9.

Although it will be difficult for them against the very same, South American side in Durban next Saturday, considering the return travel through time zones and possibility of some residual tour fatigue, the extra motivator will be knowledge that victory there will see them leapfrog the Stormers - while also dealing a significant blow to last season’s conference winners.

If they get past that obstacle, the Sharks would then have a wonderful chance to put further daylight between themselves and the Newlands-based team, as they host them in a humdinger one week later.

Inconveniently, to an extent, considering that they would probably have preferred to quickly put Saturday's home debacle behind them with a follow-up showing laced with atonement energy, the Stormers enter a bye week ahead of the big derby.

Or will the rest instead help them, and the high volume of activity leading up to the clash by the Sharks - six weeks of non-stop fixtures, including the quartet abroad - come back to bite the KwaZulu-Natalians at a bad time?

That is something that will be answered in a fortnight.

Clear already, though, is that the Sharks currently boast a much more rounded, multi-pronged game than the forward-obsessed Stormers, who also have a still-labouring occupant of the flyhalf berth in young Damian Willemse.

Their ability to run the ball confidently and majestically from deep was again influential in their triumph at Suncorp Stadium, where captain Lukhanyo Am and strikingly transformed, zestful eighth-man Sikhumbuzo Notshe were key figures in the outcome.

Yet the biggest talking point from a South African perspective on Saturday was arguably still just how lethargic and ill at ease the Stormers were.

It was almost as if they thought they’d got the Blues game in the bag before kick-off, and already had their minds on a feet-up week.

The men from more temperate Auckland were the ones to look enormously more at home in the 33 deg C, late-summer heat at Newlands, and when they went 20-0 up after just 21 minutes, it exposed the inability of the Stormers to adjust to the demands of "catch-up rugby" - they are far better at grinding out a lead and then defending it.

"Totally lacklustre ... nothing's been working for them," was the late-match verdict of their former skipper and SuperSport pundit Jean de Villiers.

Back in the studio, meanwhile, former Springbok coach and Stormers director of rugby Nick Mallett noted that perhaps the Capetonians had overplayed, to this point, superstar Bok forward Pieter-Steph du Toit.

"He looked whacked even as he ran out today," said Mallett.

Mind you, so did most of his team-mates, on a weekend where the Sharks gained such profound traction domestically …

Next weekend's fixtures (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):

Friday: Sunwolves v Brumbies, 05:45; Crusaders v Reds, 08:05; Waratahs v Chiefs, 10:15. Saturday: Hurricanes v Blues, 08:05; Rebels v Lions, 10:15; Sharks v Jaguares, 15:05; Bulls v Highlanders, 17:15. Bye: Stormers.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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