Gavin Rich - SuperSport
Johannesburg - The Cell C Sharks have been fatigued and tired over the past few weeks but the start of a new phase of competition is coinciding with the additional re-energising effect of having key players coming back into the system at just the right time.
According to the supersport.com website, that should explain the cautious optimism that is flooding through the camp and which was epitomised by skipper Bismarck du Plessis during a question and answer session with media at the Sharks’ Kings Park gym during a break in the build-up to Saturday’s home quarter-final against the Highlanders here in Durban.
“You do get re-energised when this phase of the season arrives, it is like a new competition is starting and you approach it like that,” said Du Plessis.
“When the season started there were 15 teams, and now there are six left. That was where we wanted to be at this stage of the season, we wanted to be in the six, and we are cherishing the opportunity to play in front of our home crowd in a play-off fixture. We weren’t happy with our last performance here (against the Stormers) and we wouldn’t have wanted that to be how our home season ended.
“We also have Beast Mtawarira and Pat Lambie looking like they are ready to play again and that is a massive boost for the team. They are important players and having them back brings a massive lift to the guys.”
Du Plessis stuck to the party line that appears to have been adopted by the Sharks that it is only about this week and they are looking no further than that, but there was also no hiding the optimism he feels that his team could go all the way even though a third placed finish has condemned the Sharks to the so-called “low road” to the trophy.
“We are a team that is always confident, no matter who we are playing against. We push each other for positions and in most positions there is depth in the squad. The Waratahs played well and that was why they ended top of the log, and we ended third. We can’t change that and we can’t change the Waratahs’ path.
“But we have a good squad, and the guys do respond well to the pressure of playing knock-out rugby, when you know any mistake can knock you out of the competition. I can’t tell you how hard the path we have is going to be because we haven’t done it before and it is like asking someone how hard the Comrades Marathon is when they haven’t run it. I can only tell you how hard the last game was.”
And Du Plessis is in agreement that the hard derby against the Stormers was the perfect way to warm up for the knock-out phases as there had been a lot of pressure on the players to perform.
“We felt we had let ourselves down in the past few losses and we wanted to play good rugby. We took it minute by minute. The guys responded well to the pressure, but I wasn’t surprised by that as we have played well most of the season. It was a physical game and we knew we had to be physical as we had let ourselves down with our physicality in the previous matches.
“While our most important focus was to play well and hopefully win, we did want to push for the four tries and the winning margin needed when we went 12 points up. We knew then that a few more converted tries could put us in the picture. But it didn’t happen, and we were happy to win as it was a good performance that brought confidence. As I say, we have played well most of the season, and the way we see it, we let ourselves down three times.”
The Highlanders league match at Kings Park in which the Sharks were outplayed just ahead of their overseas tour was one of the games where the Sharks would have felt they let themselves down. They are determined to put that right on Saturday.
“Against us last time their forwards were really physical and dominant in the tight loose. We will have to be up for the battle in the tight loose and put our mark on them. Our main emphasis will have to be that we will be hard at the breakdown. We also can’t give penalties away as last time they punished us for our mistakes and kicked all their points. So we will have to play in the right areas of the field.”
Du Plessis didn’t play against the Highlanders in that game as he had to withdraw beforehand with an injury, and there were a few other top players missing. With the key players back, as was the case in Cape Town this past weekend, the Sharks are confident they can reverse the result of their last meeting with the Highlanders.
But Du Plessis also knows that his team are going to have to improve on their set-piece performance from that game even though in recent matches both the Highlanders lineout and scrum have struggled.
“In any game you target the set-piece as you have to win your ball first and foremost. I wouldn’t agree that their scrum is weak as in my view they have a strong scrum,” said the Sharks captain.
“They didn’t struggle against us last time in the set-piece. In that game we gave away two penalties in our first two scrums, and they also drove us over the line from a lineout. We definitely weren’t happy with that.”
A rousing performance against the Highlanders will give the Sharks a foundation of confidence to take with them to Christchurch for the semi-final, but Du Plessis is only interested in winning on Saturday, and doesn’t care how it is achieved.
“Even if it is just by one point I will be happy. If you look too far ahead of yourselves you can trip at the first hurdle. All we are focused on now is playing well and winning in front of what hopefully will be a full house.”