Gavin Rich - SuperSport
Johannesburg - The Sharks face the champion teams of the two competitions they compete in over the next fortnight and the pressure is on them to win both if they are to compete for South African conference honours in Vodacom Super Rugby with any degree of comfort.
The Sharks spent most of last season chasing the game behind the Stormers in the conference battle and at this early stage of 2012 they are in danger of doing so again as the Bulls and the Stormers open up an early gap. The Sharks play the Lions, the domestic champs, at Mr Price Kings Park this Saturday before following up against the Reds the following week.
As they then go on tour, the Sharks coaches know how crucial it is for their team to pick up momentum, particularly as their first tour game is against the Waratahs in Sydney, where they boast a poor record. But while disappointed at the way his team lost, Sharks coach John Plumtree had reason to feel a lot more upbeat after his team’s 15-12 defeat to the Stormers at Newlands.
“We have lost our two opening games but playing the Bulls and the Stormers away first up was always going to be tough and it does need to be emphasized that they were away games,” said Plumtree.
“I thought that in this game we rectified a lot of the things that we weren’t good at in the game against the Bulls at Loftus. And whereas against the Bulls we just didn’t pitch and I questioned the attitude, this time there is no need for me to do that. It was just one of those close games and maybe where we fell down was in not sustaining the pressure on the Stormers when we had them under the kosh.
“It’s a long competition and we have plenty of time to come back, but it is crucial that we put it together against the Lions this coming week in our first home game. The defeats have made the first two home games even more important for us.”
Plumtree obviously didn’t want to say it publicly, but he would have been justified if he felt a bit aggrieved at some of the calls made by referee Mark Lawrence, who awarded 10 penalties to one against the Sharks in the second half. Sharks skipper Keegan Daniel was probably quite right to claim that when he was penalised with three minutes to go in what was to prove the decisive moment of a match which generally delivered poor quality, he was coming in from outside the touchline.
The Sharks were missing several key players for the Cape Town match, and that is one of the reasons they can feel there is no real need to panic as they look forward to the rest of the competition. When Willem Alberts returns, which he is expected to do this week, he will add considerably to the Sharks’ ability to force their way across the advantage line.
Young Marcell Coetzee did that with good effect against the Stormers, and the Sharks marginally turned around the beating they took at the gainline in the corresponding game last year, but Alberts’ strength in the tackle and his excellent ball skills mean that he is easier for the players around him to play off.
Jean Deysel is also due back later in the competition, and so is Beast Mtawarira, while Alistair Hargreaves should add authority to the tight five once he has benefitted from an early season conditioning program. Not that Ross Skeate left anything on the table at Newlands – his performance at his old home ground was one of his finest in Sharks clothing, his yellow card notwithstanding.
The Sharks have been in a much bigger hole than the one they are in now, and the memory of how they lost their five opening games in 2010 and then came back to nearly make the semifinals in the shorter Super 14 league season will give them confidence in their ability to pick up the momentum they need.
Although they lost at Newlands they ended the game feeling that they were the better team and with so many players still to return they should feel they can reverse the results of the opening two games when they face the Stormers and Bulls again on their home field later in the competition.