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Sharks the team to beat as Super 15 takes shape

The Super Rugby universe has known the Bulls as the most feared South African team, with their large pack of forwards and unwavering devotion to the boot epitomising what many from Australasia think is the “typical” South African style of rugby. With three Super Rugby titles, second only behind the Crusaders and tied with the Blues, the team that swept all aside last year and in 2009 fully exploited the laws appeared to be once again the leaders in the pack from the Republic (the Anzacs do like using that instead of South Africa … in the same way the Elves describe Mordor as the nation they most fear perhaps).

This year the climate has shifted somewhat. Though the Bulls have had a slow start to the competition before, the vast majority of Super Rugby fans assumed, wrongly so (including myself), that once they set foot back at Fortress Loftus, the Highlanders would be brushed aside in that ruthless manner visiting teams have come to expect when venturing to the capital. We were all given a wake-up call with the Highlanders reminding the rest of the competition — and especially the South African teams — that the Bulls aren’t invincible and given the right amount of cohesion and forward aggression, can be beaten and soundly.

The feeling in Australia and New Zealand before the tournament started was that the Bulls were the best South African side with the Stormers and Sharks following respectively. While the Bulls will most undoubtedly come back and challenge for a spot in the play-offs considering the quality within their ranks (you can’t say the same for the Lions and Cheetahs), the Sharks’ performances over the last two weeks show that perhaps they are finally ready to vanquish the ghost of 2007. A moment of pause from Frans Steyn saw the Bulls get the ball with seconds to go and Bryan Habana run through an alarming gap to dive over for the winning try.

In Perth, the Banana Boys (to use a term other than Durbanites) did a most un-South African thing: they killed off the game with 10 minutes to go. Usually, South African sides have a propensity to win the game for 70 minutes then sit back and defend their lead. The Force, even with 14 men, managed to keep fighting till the Sharks ran away with it towards the end. Last night against the Rebels, John Plumtree’s side were perhaps surprised by the tempo and intensity the Rebels brought to the game with Danny Cipriani scoring one of the individual tries of the season. However, as I watched the game at Aami Park, I felt the Sharks were sticking to their plan since they believed it would work: keep it tight and simple until you get into the opposition half. Even though the scoreline reads 34-32, the Sharks didn’t appear to hit their stride, with one of the few moments they did leading to a try for Lwazi Mvovo. He had Willem Alberts to thank after the giant loose-forward went through the Rebels line at good pace to unlock the defence. If Juan Smith doesn’t make the World Cup, Alberts appears to be a fine replacement.

Their starting XV last night was packed with 12 Springboks, with AD Jacobs being another sitting on the bench. I was sitting next to a chap who works for the Rebels and he remarked that the sheer size of the Sharks team was something to behold. When you have the likes of Bismarck du Plessis (the world’s best hooker), Beast Mtawarira, Alberts, Ryan Kankowski and Steven Sykes in your scrum, it makes a difference when keeping tight, which the Sharks did exceptionally well. This is excluding John Smit and Jannie du Plessis, who will be playing musical chairs for the rest of the season unless Smit starts in his best position, hooker.

Patrick Lambie has been a find and with Jacques Louis-Potgieter providing ample replacement for No10 and the talented former Stormer Conrad Hoffman covering Charl McLeod, the Sharks have the sort of depth that means come the business end of the competition, they will be in a better position than most if or more appropriately when injuries occur.

The Stormers won another tight contest last night against the Highlanders and while their defence is proving once again to be one of the best in the competition (the Sharks for the record conceded their first try of the competition last night), the Capetonians need to start dotting the ball down over the whitewash and earn bonus points, which will prove crucial over the course of their campaign. Alistair Coetzee, who I predict will be the next Springbok coach and rightly so, will be working hard to figure out why the Stormers aren’t playing in a way that the Newlands faithful want them to play. Still, they are unbeaten thus far but tougher challenges lie ahead.

For the Bulls, this week’s bye has come at a good time, allowing the defending champions to take stock and correct what went wrong against the Highlanders. They’ll come back stronger, leaving their next fixture, a north-south derby against the Stormers, as a tantalising proposition for rugby fans across the country.

For the Lions and Cheetahs, they are battling it out for the wooden spoon in the conference. Lions fans (including this one) see a fourth place finish this season in the conference as no dishonour. If only they could start closing out games like the Sharks are doing now. The Cheetahs have once again proven that they don’t need a smorgasbord of star players to be effective and with Heinrich Brussow returning from injury, after being out of the game for a year, many beyond the Orange and Vaal Rivers will be hoping the dynamo comes back at full force. With Schalk Burger not as robust as he used to be, Brussow’s fitness till October is of the utmost importance for the Springboks’ fortunes in New Zealand

It’s been an interesting competition thus far, but at this stage I see the Sharks topping the South African conference and if they can force sides to travel west to Kings Park for the knock-outs, a place in the final is a distinct possibility.

Of the Anzacs, the Highlanders will run out of steam as their squad gets tested by injury. The Crusaders are the biggest threat from the Seat of Blackness (thanks Alternative Rugby Commentary) with the Blues suggesting that maybe they will get keen this year to mount a challenge. If Luke McAllister answers the call finally at flyhalf, they might actually do it. In Australia, the Brumbies have imploded (finding themselves Friend-less), leaving the Waratahs and Reds as the most likely Australian sides to challenge for honours this year. The Rebels will continue to find the competition tough going but are already proving a tough assignment (ignoring Week 1) at Aami Park. The Force are going to miss David Pocock, but it’s their lack of strike power in their backline that will continue to hurt the Perth-based side.

I had my reservations about this year’s format but have been happily proved wrong. The competition thus far is intriguing and will continue to be so come the play-offs.