THE Sharks have an opportunity to emulate the Stormers’ feat of three wins on an Australasian tour in the conference era should they topple the unpredictable Blues in Albany today.
Whether or not the Sharks win, their tour will be remembered as significant because of their slaying of the Crusaders last week. That is now in the past and a new challenge awaits them.
Victory will put further daylight between the Sharks and the chasing pack, even though the Brumbies and the Chiefs, the respective Australian and New Zealand conference leaders, will be action later today and tomorrow.
Until 2011, two South African teams were required to play five tour games in every alternate year. Winning two was often viewed as an excellent achievement and anything else was considered a bonus.
In their 2007 championship- winning campaign the Bulls won three from five, laying the platform for the late-season charge that saw them upstage the Sharks at King’s Park.
The Stormers used their tour wins as a launchpad for their successive play-off charges and the Sharks should do the same.
The Sharks have generally travelled well but their record has been magnified by other South African teams’ inability to win in Australasia this season. Tactical naivety, inexplicable selections and home-town officiating have been at the heart of those gut- wrenching performances, but the Sharks did nothing different against the Crusaders.
As they did against the Brumbies, they kicked most of their possession away – but did so smartly to nullify the Crusaders’ counter-attack.
During their SA tour, the Blues’ weak kicking game was exposed by the Lions and the Bulls. Their running game based on wayward tactical kicking was on full display and they were unfortunate not to go home with wins rather than the losses they incurred.
Their back three may be explosive, but if the creative genius of Ma’a Nonu is shackled, they will be rendered redundant. Sibusiso Sithole and Paul Jordaan may not be the most experienced midfield pairing but have proved to be defensively solid.
The Sharks are a far better unit than the Bulls and the Lions combined, and it will be a question of whether the Blues can stand up to the Sharks’ physicality.
The Highlanders and the Brumbies proved that the Sharks, like most South African teams, have no answer when their physical threat is blunted.
On paper, they have picked a unit that is capable of dealing with the Sharks – but as the Sharks proved last week, reputations count for nothing if they are not backed up with deeds.
The Blues have not beaten the Sharks since their 36-13 triumph at Eden Park in 2005. The Sharks’ last visit to Albany in 2007 was a 32-25 win and they carry four survivors from that game in Bismarck du Plessis, Tendai Mtawarira, Jacques Botes and JP Pietersen.
The Blues though are unbeaten at home and have played some of their best rugby on their home ground. Like the Sharks, they have also toppled the Crusaders this season. – Khanyiso Tshwaku