Cape Town – The Sharks, with just six wins from 15 matches in 2018, go into the final round of Super Rugby fixtures this weekend with a real shot at making the playoffs.
Currently 9th on the overall log, the Durbanites need a watered-down Highlanders side to do them a favour by beating the Rebels first thing on Saturday morning.
The Rebels, with their fate in their own hands, are on 35 points to the Sharks’ 32 and occupy the final wildcard playoff spot. Victory for them in Dunedin would eliminate the Sharks.
By the time Robert du Preez’s charges run out onto the Kings Park turf at 17:15 on Saturday, they will know the equation and it will be a case of having either everything or nothing to play for.
A closer look, though, suggests that the Sharks can have no complaints if they miss out.
While the Stormers have been labelled South Africa’s worst Super Rugby team in 2018, the log standings reveal that they have won just as many matches as the Sharks and the Bulls – six.
If the Bulls, who travel to Johannesburg to take on the Lions, and the Sharks both lose this weekend, then it would be incredibly unfair to single out the Stormers.
Not even the Lions are guaranteed top spot in the SA Conference. If they lose to the Bulls on Saturday and the Jaguares win in Durban, then it will be the Argentineans who claim first place and a home quarter-final.
Whatever happens this weekend, all of the Sharks, Bulls and Stormers will finish the groups stages with a win percentage of less than 50%, and that points towards a very disappointing season from a South African perspective.
No side with a 40% win return in regular season (the Sharks’ current return) should be deserving of a place in the knockouts.
That would never happen in the days of Super 12, where only one side in the history of that 10-year-long format qualified for the playoffs with a win percentage of less than 50%.
The tournament today, as the Sharks would prove if they make the playoffs, rewards mediocrity.
Before the expansion to 18 teams in 2016, the 15-team format between 2011 and 2015 rewarded six playoff spots.
This year, with the competition back to 15 teams, there are eight playoff places.
The Sharks have been seriously impressive at times and have found a balance between being direct and expansive that many have suggested should be the South African blueprint moving forward.
Their efforts against the New Zealand sides have been particularly noticeable, where they have won three out of four, including a one-point loss to the Hurricanes in Wellington.
Inconsistency, though, has plagued their season.
The Sharks lost heavily at home to the Bulls, didn’t turn up for a date with the Jaguares in Buenos Aires and then, this past weekend, they missed an opportunity to take a giant leap towards the playoffs when they came unstuck against the lowly Stormers in Cape Town when it mattered most.
The positives probably outweigh the negatives this season, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Sharks have been nowhere near consistent enough to warrant a quarter-final place.
That they are still in the running says more about the state of the competition than anything else.
It is not fair that the Lions, with 41 points, are placed above the Hurricanes with 50 points and the Chiefs with 45 points on the overall log.
That is a sentiment shared by most, but it is the way that this tournament is run to ensure that it is not completely dominated by the Kiwi teams.
There is more change on the horizon for Super Rugby, and while there is no clarity yet in terms of what that change will look like, the next format must ensure that the sides that progress to the playoffs deserve to be there.
We do not want a situation where teams are rewarded for losing more than they win.