The Sharks need to improve but are still odds on for a home semi-final.
If the Sharks and Bulls win their remaining matches their May 16 clash at King’s Park could be a potential home play-off decider. A glance at the remaining fixtures suggests that is a very possible scenario.
Of the teams currently seriously vying for a play-off berth, the Bulls and Sharks have what appears to be a more favourable run-in.
The Sharks have a luxury of a bye before facing the Highlanders and Waratahs in Durban, while the Bulls host the Chiefs, Force and Cheetahs before the South African derby at King’s Park.
The Hurricanes, currently in fourth, have home matches against the Brumbies and Blues before tackling the Chiefs and Reds in Hamilton and Brisbane respectively. The Blues should take five points from their home match against the Reds this weekend, but face the Canes (A), Brumbies (A) and Crusaders (H) thereafter, while the Tahs conclude their campaign with a tour of the Republic where they face the Cheetahs, Sharks and Lions on consecutive weekends.
The Brumbies will probably have to win three away games to sneak into the play-offs, the Force still have their South African tour on the horizon and the Crusaders must replicate their heroics at King’s Park for the next fortnight on the road, then beat the Reds (H) and Blues (A) if they are to stand a chance of defending their title.
While the smart money would be on the Sharks to secure a home semi-final, they simply cannot afford to slip again. They’ve lost to the two weakest sides in the tournament and butchered what should have been a 20-point win over the Crusaders on Saturday. They’ll take solace from the fact that even though their finishing was truly awful, they were solid in all facets of play, and improved concentration and accuracy in the red zone is not a major flaw to mend.
Three four point wins will leave them on 43 points, while 46 is the maximum points tally they can achieve should they take 15 points from those remaining matches. The Bulls could enter the Sharks match on 41 or 44 points depending on whether they win their preceding three fixtures by banking four of five points), reinforcing the potential importance of that fixture.
The Sharks will be bolstered by the return of Ruan Pienaar for their match against the Highlanders in a fortnight. His recovery will ease the pressure on Frans Steyn, who hasn’t excelled at flyhalf in his absence. Steyn will shift back to inside centre, where the increased space and time he is afforded suits him better.
The Sharks see Pienaar’s return as crucial, but there have to be concerns around relying heavily on a player who hasn’t played since 14 March and one who is in his first full season at pivot. Nevertheless, he is a world-class player whose mere presence will galvanise his side. Coach John Plumtree will also be able to able to rely on a significantly stronger bench in light of Jean Deysel and Waylon Murray’s return from injury.
The panic is premature, but one more defeat will justify concerns.
By Ryan Vrede