Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
The Sharks were left feeling just a little like a “Liverpool” as they greatly tightened their grip on the South African conference of Super Rugby on Saturday … immediately ahead of the tournament’s suspension and uncertain future in 2020.
While the overall quality of their Kings Park derby against the Stormers left a lot to be desired – a pretty common pattern when these two meet – Sean Everitt’s charges were full value for the 24-14 triumph.
It stretched their supremacy in the group to a clear-cut seven points over the Capetonians, even if the Stormers have a game in hand.
Yet it is already obvious that it will take some doing, when or if competition resumes, for the Sharks – also a point clear of defending champions the Crusaders overall, though again from one extra match – to be hauled in as masters of the conference, whether by the Stormers or Jaguares.
In that sense, they will now have at least part of the sort of anxiety prevalent at Anfield in soccer’s English Premiership, where the Reds boast a particularly gaping lead over any challengers and were desperately close to securing the title unusually early – before the global coronavirus crisis struck.
Barring a miracle of some magnitude, you can already write off any likelihood of the two Highveld teams, the Lions and Bulls, dramatically becoming a threat among the five sides in the group.
Both slipped to putrid one-from-six records after the latest round, following respective heavy defeats to the Blues (Auckland) and Reds (Brisbane).
While the Lions were especially comprehensively trounced by the New Zealand side earlier on Saturday (43-10), the men from Loftus began their tour – which now comes to a sharp halt after only one fixture – in a flurry of attacking majesty against their Aussie hosts, opening up a 17-0 lead early on through three attractive tries.
But they then lost the plot lamentably, leaking a deflating 41 points without any further reply to end with tails between legs all over again.
On evidence so far, the pair will be also-rans in 2020, whether combat resumes or not.
The Stormers are still at the races despite successive defeats, courtesy of their all-wins record from the first four outings.
Yet there is an unmistakably mounting sense that they simply won’t have the pedigree and breadth of gameplan – again – to be serious title challengers.
Aside from generally stout defence and traditional levels of broad grunt, they offered very little to the Durban date in constructive rugby terms, although strapping young No 8 Juarno “Trokkie” Augustus had a key hand in both Stormers tries and shone in other capacities, into the bargain.
The Sharks, expected beforehand to play second fiddle in set-piece terms, did more than hold their own in those areas, and that went a long way to ensuring their guests spent long passages firmly on the back foot – the KwaZulu-Natalians commanded roughly two thirds of both possession and territory and were smarter and more “swarming” at the breakdown.
Additionally, the Stormers were extremely fortunate to see flanker Johan du Toit get away with only a yellow card straight from the clash’s kick-off when he recklessly played Sharks scrumhalf Louis Schreuder in the air.
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The seasoned No 9, once on the books at Newlands, landed on the back on his shoulders and had a significant head whiplash in contact with the deck, too, meaning that he was stretchered off – though fortunately concussion was the apparent limit of damage.
Referee AJ Jacobs appeared to differ with television match official Willie Vos, who was urging a more comprehensive sending-off for Du Toit.
Apart from being outfoxed on the day anyway, the Stormers suffered a significant injury tally which might have had grave repercussions had they been pressing on over the next few weeks, rather than taking this break of worrisomely unknown duration.
Flyhalf Jean-Luc du Plessis left the park in pain after a heavy but legal hit from Sharks midfield bomber Andre Esterhuizen, Springbok scrumhalf Herschel Jantjies did not reappear after half-time with rumours of some sort of fracture, and late in the game another big Test figure, loose-head prop and skipper Steven Kitshoff, also quit the action nursing what might be a torn pectoral muscle.
In stark contrast, the Sharks (currently with only one blemish from seven outings) have done extremely well to get to this juncture – one more week of activity at home to the Chiefs and they would have had an overdue first bye – with a pretty low casualty list.
It is just one further reason to strongly suspect they will remain the country’s overwhelmingly premier hope of title glory in the event that the ravages of the global pandemic come to a merciful halt any time soon …
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