Saving our best for last
Sport24 columnist Alistair Hargreaves (File)
When the whistle blew after 80 minutes of some of the toughest, tensest and most thrilling rugby I’ve experienced, we knew we had achieved something special. It was a long-overdue performance, and the synergy between the players was as tangible as the blood on our jerseys.
The build-up to the Bulls clash was also something rather special, as the permutations of the fixture meant that only one team could survive the final cut.
As tickets flew out of the Loftus box office with fans eager to bid farewell to their stalwart stars, we quietly made the journey up to Rustenburg to prepare for an encounter that proved to be the saving grace of our season.
It was a week in which hard work was balanced with recovery and planning, and one where the 'old men' once again proved just how invaluable leadership and experience is to a team.
Stefan Terblanche and John Smit prepared us for the clash with pearls of wisdom gained over a combined career of 30+ years, and John once again in my mind reaffirmed just why he is the man to lead the Boks to their third World Cup title.
As we sat in the change room with the clock counting down to kick off, Stefan left us with these words, "I will not ask anything more of you than what you are capable of, but all I ask is for you to do your best, knowing that the guy next to you will be doing his.”
There was no head banging, no shouting or screaming, just an intense focus and a surreal feeling of desire permeating through the air as the boys shook each others hands and headed out onto fortress Loftus.
On running out, I couldn't resist the opportunity to do a full 360 and take in a sold-out Loftus Versfeld. Strangely enough, a wide smile stretched across my face, as I knew I had just walked into something really special. How right I was.
We fired from the get go, and the first ten minutes set the standard for what turned out to be a highly physical encounter between two sides desperate to keep their playoff hopes alive.
The decision to move Fred Michalak to flyhalf proved to be a good one, as he cracked over a booming drop goal early on, and ran things with authority from the No 10 jersey.
And what a blessing it is to have a player like Pat Lambie who can function so effectively in so many positions - he filled the big shoes of Louis Ludik at fullback with aplomb.
It’s hard to single out individual performers, however, as every one on the park really did put in their pound of flesh. That's what rugby is about: When the individuals who make up a team operate cohesively. It makes the game fun to play, and great to watch.
The half-time score of 16-13 in our favour meant that the second half performance would have to be as clinical as the first, and the coach’s half time message was plain and simple: It's yours to win, or lose.
The fact that we pulled through to beat a championship side like the Bulls in their own back yard – who are renowned for their ability to win important games – says a lot about our team. It might just be indicative of how we are maturing as a union and, following on from last year’s Currie Cup, shows that we are getting much better at winning knockout games.
Last week, I promised an effort that sharks fans would be proud of regardless of the result. Some people disagreed with my attitude as they saw it as an excuse for us to make losing somewhat acceptable - that is certainly not the case.
It’s merely a way of saying that we are fully focused on the things that we can control: our attitudes, our preparation, and our commitment to the team. We cannot predict how our opponents will perform on the day, but we firmly believe that if we are at our best we can take on, and take out, anyone.
In rugby, as in life, with each journey that ends so a new one begins. Our journey now has us flying halfway across the world to face a completely new challenge against the Crusaders.
A lot has changed from last week, but my attitude remains the same: We will put together a performance that we can be proud of, that our fans can be proud of, and one that hopefully shows that we are not just in this tournament to compete, but to win.Alistair Hargreaves was educated at Durban High School and captained the SA Schools side in 2004. Besides being a stalwart in the Sharks' second row, he's also played two Tests for the Springboks.Disclaimer:
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