The race for places in the Finals Series is still wide open as the penultimate round of Vodacom Super Rugby action for 2012 kicks off on Friday morning.
In New Zealand, the Chiefs will top their Conference – that is a fact. In Australia, the defending champion Reds can still catch the Brumbies, coached by former Springbok mentor Jake White, but they will need a few results to go their way.
And here in South Africa the DHL Stormers lead the Vodacom Bulls by four log points as the Capetonians look set to claim the Conference for the second time running.
The Sharks can still make the Top Six but they will have to beat the Bulls in Durban on Friday evening, otherwise they will certainly miss out.
The team from Pretoria will need the win to keep the pressure on the Stormers, but can also ensure home ground advantage in the Qualifiers by finishing fourth on the Combined log.
For the Stormers, victory in Bloemfontein over the Cheetahs should seal the South African Conference, while first place on the log is also still a possibility, but then the Chiefs would have to slip up somewhere.
The Cheetahs are still chasing their sixth win of the season, which will make 2012 the best in their history, while history will be made in Johannesburg when the Lions and the Rebels clash for the very first time.
The Sharks vs Bulls is the big game of the weekend.
It’s do or die for The Sharks at Kings Park on Friday evening when they host the Bulls in what promises to be an enthralling Vodacom Super Rugby encounter.
Lose and The Sharks will not make the playoffs. It’s as simple as that really.
The permutations are a little bit better for the Bulls, who can still top the South African Conference if they win in Durban, but would need the Stormers to slip up somewhere in their final two matches.
John Plumtree, coach of The Sharks, knows the pressure is on his team to deliver the goods on Friday, even though they will be without injured Springboks Willem Alberts and Pat Lambie, while two other stalwarts of the pack, Steven Sykes and Jacques Botes, are also out with injuries.
“Clearly, when the gun is pointed straight between our eyes, we react better, which is a bit unfortunate,” said Plumtree.
“But this is a home game for us and we’re looking forward to a big crowd to help us out. We have a few worries, but there is plenty of character in this group and we have to dig deep on the weekend and get on top of this Bulls team that is riding pretty high at the moment”.
Frans Ludeke, whose Bulls team come off a comprehensive 40-24 victory over the Cheetahs, relishes the challenge of travelling to the Shark Tank for such a big game.
“I would like to believe that our team thrive on challenges and the bigger they are, the better we respond,” said Ludeke.
“This is why the guys put in the hours and hours of hard work after all. They want to be out there when the challenge is at its biggest and toughest. We prepared well and everyone is very keen to do well. We still have our destiny in our own hands and want to keep it like that.”
Bulls captain Pierre Spies knows it will be very tough in Durban against a Sharks side that has a lot riding on the result of this match.
“There are numerous game breakers in their side and they do play in front of passionate supporters,” said Spies.
“We have been able to achieve important results there in the past though and the feeling in the camp is that we can do it again. We cannot repeat what happened in the last 20 minutes against the Cheetahs. To beat the Sharks in Durban you not only need 80 minutes of effort, but a special 80 minutes to that.”
The Sharks v Vodacom Bulls
Date: 6 July
SA Time: 19:10
Venue: Mr Price Kings Park, Durban
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Marius Jonker (South Africa), Tiaan Jonker (South Africa)
Television match official: Shaun Veldsman (South Africa)