IT has been a difficult year in Durban but the Sharks are determined to finish the Super Rugby season on a high — starting with their clash against the Rebels tonight at Kings Park.
The Durban outfit have taken all of 13 weeks to hit their straps and a month away from home gave the side a chance to regroup and focus on the areas that let them down.
Defence has been a facet of the Sharks’ play that cost them dearly in earlier rounds. Director of rugby Gary Gold conceded his side were poor earlier in the season but said this week that the Australasian tour gave his charges the time they needed to readdress their defensive structures.
There was a marked improvement in that department. Winning the collisions helped, but Renaldo Bothma and Marcell Coetzee were outstanding at the breakdowns. However, they were overshadowed by Springbok hooker Bismarck du Plessis — who looks to be back to his best after relinquishing the Sharks captaincy upon returning from a six-week ban.
“The last three games, he was immense for us, he played outstanding rugby, he’s back to the Bismarck of old,” Gold beamed earlier this week.
“If there were any issues bothering him — that certainly didn’t come through. He was brilliant at training, he’s an outstanding professional, he works unbelievably hard on his game and I’m so happy with him. He’s reaping the rewards at the moment. For me he is quite comfortably the best hooker in the world. He and Marco have a good understanding at lineout time. His work-rate around the park is immense.”
There is no doubt there will be a massive tussle in the tight-loose tonight. The Rebels have selected a competitive loose trio featuring young Sean McMahon, Colby Fainga’a and Wallaby stalwart Scott Higginbotham.
McMahon is an exciting prospect and the Wallaby has impressed since making his debut for Australia last year. Alongside Higginbotham, both have proved dangerous attacking weapons for their side as main ball carriers. They are also aggressive at the breakdown.
The Sharks should fancy themselves at the rucks and if Du Plessis’s form there is anything to go by, so they should. The Springbok was immense against the Reds, turning over the ball six times by himself. However, Gold believes their success there depends on the officiating and his players ability to adapt.
“When there’s a variation of referees, you need to control what you can control. We need to ask when are we going to have a go at it, how are we going to react? I sat here when we were under huge pressure because we had three red cards this season. It hurt us and I tried to say our discipline wasn’t that bad. We’re sitting at an average of 7-8 penalties a game,” Gold said.
“Discipline is important for us. We don’t give away lots of penalties and I commend these players for that. I’ve seen teams tour from a dark place and perhaps not give up, but just go through the motions and not be as disciplined. The reaction and understanding of the breakdown is important and the reaction to the referees is critically important. It’s a battle we believe we have the players to fight and I thought we won it hands down on Friday night with Marcell and Bismarck.”
Ryan Kankowski will have to get through some of the donkey work as Coetzee is being rested tonight, but his head to head with Higginbotham will be worth the entry fee.
As for Gold’s thoughts on the Rebels, the Sharks boss believes they are completely different side to the one that joined Super Rugby back in 2011.
“They’ve won more games than we have this year, they’re the more improved team over the last couple of years, they pose similar threats to the Reds, they have big strong running backs, an outstanding back row, they are playing with four open sides — the breakdown area is going to be huge,” Gold said.
“Once they get into phase play, they look after the ball. That’s why they’ve had the results they have, against some very good teams. We’re going to have our work cut out us, they’ve had some big victories this year, they’ve beaten the Waratahs, the Crusaders away …”
Kickoff is at 7.10 pm tonight at Kings Park.
Today’s Super Rugby fixtures
Crusaders v Hurricanes - 9.35 am
Brumbies v Bulls - 11.40 am
Sharks v Rebels - 7.10 pm