Cheetahs to KO Sharks?

The foot-of-the table Cheetahs will have a telling say in the final-four standings if they pull off a win in Durban this weekend.

There’s hardly a soul who doesn’t bemoan the fact before a local derby. The South African franchises reserve their best and roughest displays for their own countrymen. It is because of this universal maxim that you cannot write off the 13th-placed Cheetahs when they face the Sharks, who desperately need a win to remain in the play-off hunt.

The stats paint a bleak picture if you’re a Cheetahs supporter. The central franchise have conceded 335 points and 44 tries in 11 matches, a try-concession that is already worse than their 2007 tally (37 in 13 games).

But the Super Rugby history between these two teams suggests Saturday’s outcome will be anything but predictable. The Sharks won comfortably in Bloemfontein last season after a couple of tries against the run of play, but in the only Super Rugby fixture staged at Kings Park (in 2006), the Cheetahs took the spoils 27-26. This was the year the Sharks were denied a semi-final spot on points-difference, and it could certainly be said that a modestly-talented Cheetahs team influenced their final log standing. Will the Cheetahs have a similar say in 2008?

The loss of several top players has cost the Cheetahs in the tight finishes. The one-on-one defence is a shambles and the ball security in contact is an ongoing problem.

But the Sharks have also had their problems at the breakdown. They won some ugly games before leaving for Australasia, but have been sorely exposed Down Under. The loss of the big names has also taken its toll (read John Smit, Butch James, Bob Skinstad and Percy Montgomery) and the question needs to be asked if they are champion material. The answer in 2007 was clear, but the 2008 performance probably has the most loyal supporter in doubt.

The Sharks have one of the best defensive systems in the competition, having only conceded 18 tries. The trouble is they have the worst try-scoring record having only crossed the line 20 times. The only bonus point they’ve gained for four tries was against the Bulls in a 29-15 win.

This is another reason they could miss the play-offs, and once again the Cheetahs could be the team to deny them. The central franchise may not win when they head east this Saturday, but in a typically forward-oriented South African bust-em-up, a four-try bonus seems a big ask.

Of course, things could fall into place if the Waratahs beat the Stormers, the Force beat the Hurricanes, the Highlanders down the Blues and the Lions do the unthinkable in edging the Chiefs.

But the Sharks can’t afford to sneak a win and hope all these results go their way. A four try-display this Saturday is mandatory, as the Sharks may struggle to put four past the Chiefs in their final league match.

By Jon Cardinelli