Sharks must show more bite
While the term 'watershed weekend' is one too readily used, I believe that round eleven’s results will start to separate the wheat from the chaff in the South African conference.
The Sharks and Stormers find themselves in unfamiliar territory. Historically, by this stage of the season they have a healthy number of log points in the bag before venturing on their Antipodean adventures.
However, the coastal side’s Achilles heel has been their inability to score tries. While the Stormers have in recent seasons placed a firm focus on defence, you can’t blame conservatism for the Sharks’ woes.
The Durban-based side clearly have the personnel capable of perfecting a more rounded attacking game. However, the form and fitness of a handful of key players has to be examined.
While we must take into account that Patrick Lambie is playing his first full season at flyhalf, the reality is that the Bok incumbent is not demonstrating the form we all know he is capable of.
The Sharks have invested heavily in Lambie but is he the answer at ten? At the moment, he is not stamping his authority on the game enough and sparking the backline as he has done so effectively in the past.
In terms of fitness, Francois Steyn is another big-name player that comes under the microscope.
In my view, it’s absurd that the World Cup-winning centre can be in such poor physical condition more than half way through the round-robin season. He is clearly overweight and my question is: Why has he not been better managed?
At the start of the season, expectations from Sharks fans would have been unbelievably high, but I’m of the opinion that their campaign is in serious danger of derailing altogether if they lose to the Chiefs in Hamilton this Saturday.
For me, there is no middle ground in this match. The Sharks will either pull of a magnificent win or get well and truly whipped. Let’s hope for the sake of their supporters and South African rugby at large that the former transpires.
The Sharks have traditionally proved fine travellers and I share the sentiment that it may well be a blessing in disguise for them to escape home-town pressures. More often than not, touring has the ability to bring a squad closer together.
This was most evident in the case of the Cheetahs. Winning on tour enhanced their confidence and belief and they are now genuine playoff contenders. It’s also not overly fanciful to suggest they can also top the South African conference.
Owing to history, many supporters are still expecting them to slip up but I believe that Naka Drotske’s charges are in an altogether different space this season.
The Bulls, in contrast, started 2013 with a bang but their performances subsequently tailed off – only winning once on tour. However, I believe a couple close tour defeats would have strengthened their resolve to right the wrongs. They are now chasing their third win in as many weeks.
The Bulls were most impressive against the Kings and simply blew the Super Rugby debutants out of the water.
We saw the best of the Bulls. They were highly physical and dominant in the forward exchanges, which offered the backline front-foot ball. The Bulls may often be criticised for playing so-called ‘boring’ rugby but on this occasion their backs offered the other South African sides a lesson in execution and precision.
The Bulls and Cheetahs are certainly the in-form South African sides and now with a nice run-in of home games, everything points in their favour.
While the Cheetahs won’t employ the same direct approach the Bulls utilised against the Kings, they will most certainly challenge Matt Sexton’s side defensively. They have game breakers second to none.
I’m predicting a hat-trick of wins for the South African sides this weekend. The Bulls, Cheetahs and Stormers will triumph, while the Sharks and Kings will be left to lick their wounds.