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Stephen Nell | Columnist Index
Stephen Nell is a rugby writer based in Cape Town and works primarily for the Die Burger newspaper. He has been contributing to ESPNscrum since 2005.
Sharks lead South African resurgence
Stephen Nell
March 19, 2007

South Africa have enjoyed their best Super 14 form in years, but not even the table-topping Sharks are getting too carried away.

Their stand-in skipper, AJ Venter, sounded a warning that the competition still has a long way to go and there is an acute awareness that from hereon it will include senior All Blacks.

Provided it does not disturb the rhythm of the New Zealand teams, it will strengthen them dramatically.

Even without the likes of flank Richie McCaw, flyhalf Dan Carter, fullback Leon MacDonald and lock Chris Jack, the Crusaders comfortably beat the Bulls in Christchurch.

The Bulls, however, remain fourth on the Super14 log and together with the Sharks are harbouring realistic semifinal ambitions.

All South Africa's other teams - the Lions, Cheetahs and Stormers - are still in contention. However, the Republic's hopes will definitely be pinned on the Sharks and Bulls to break New Zealand's hold on the competition.

The Sharks top the log after six victories from as many games. However, five of those have been at home and they still have to embark on a tour for games against the Western Force, Reds, Blues and Chiefs.

South Africa did make hay, but don't be surprised if the Blues and Crusaders still hijack the home semifinal spots for New Zealand.

TEAM-BY-TEAM ANALYSIS:

SHARKS

They are all but sure of a place in the semifinals with 25 points after six games and can take another important step by beating the Brumbies in Durban on Saturday. After that they embark on a modest four-week tour. They have experience and depth to go with this year's dream draw and it's unlikely they'll slip up in their bid to make the play-offs. The only debate is whether it will be at home or away.

Remaining fixtures: Brumbies (h), Force (a), Reds (a), Blues (a), Chiefs (a), Lions (h), Stormers (a).

BULLS

It's going to be touch and go for the Bulls, whose limitations were brutally exposed by an under-strength Crusaders side. Their game is built around their pack and the lineout prowess of lock Victor Matfield, whose fitness will be of critical importance if they are going to go all the way. However, they just lack that added dimension in their game and still can't seem to find a response when taken out of their comfort zone of forward dominance.

Remaining fixtures: Highlanders (a), Hurricanes (a), Stormers (h), Lions (a), Blues (h), Reds (h).

LIONS

They are only in eighth position on the log, but already one of the success stories of this year's Super14 as they were expected by most critics to finish stone last. However, they have the scalp of the Crusaders, as well as away victories over the Western Force and Lions, to show for their endeavours. The sublime skill of Springbok flyhalf Andre Pretorius and a great team spirit make them dangerous opponents. However, their lack of class was exposed in recent defeats to the Blues and Chiefs.

Remaining fixtures: Hurricanes (h), Brumbies (h), Stormers (a), Bulls (h), Sharks (a), Cheetahs (h).

STORMERS

It's been a rollercoaster ride and the only certainty is that coach Kobus van der Merwe's job is safe until the end of the competition following a guarantee given by the Stormers' directors. They have been wildly inconsistent, with recent victories over the Hurricanes and Waratahs keeping them in the running and Van der Merwe employed. However, they lack the forward to get them on the front foot and anything above mid-table will be a surprise.

Remaining fixtures: Crusaders (a), Lions (h), Bulls (a), Blues (h), Reds (h), Sharks (h).

CHEETAHS

They look well-placed in sixth position, but have dropped too many points at home to be considered serious semifinal contenders. The weekend's 38-20 victory over the Brumbies was impressive, but there is the tour from hell to come, with five games on the road for a squad lacking quality depth. Expect a lower mid-table finish.

Remaining fixtures: Highlanders (a), Blues (a), Hurricanes (a), Reds (a), Force (a), Lions (a).

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