Gavin Rich - SuperSport
Durban - For a while in the Neo Africa Tri-Series it looked as though the pre-season tournament might be the last of its kind that the Sharks would contest as it started to become debatable whether it was a positive thing for the Durban franchise.
Although coach John Plumtree rightly contended both ahead of the event and during it that results mean nothing in pre-season games, the big defeat dished out by the Lions in the Tuesday match could not have done the Sharks confidence any good.
And following on from last year’s disaster, when they were whitewashed by the Force in one game and well beaten by the Stormers in the other, it was understandable if the Sharks started to wonder if the tournament did them any good. Last year they followed up the pre-season phase with a disastrous start to the Super 14, losing their first five matches.
However, while they lost their final game to the Stormers, the Sharks did bounce back from the Lions defeat, and as Plumtree put it afterwards, there was enough in their 17-16 defeat to “put the Lions game out of our system”.
Newlands has become something of a wake-up call venue for the Sharks in recent times. At the end of last season they were thrashed by Western Province in the last Currie Cup league match of the season but then absorbed the lessons dished out to win the final three weeks later. And in the four day turn-around between Neo Africa fixtures, the Sharks did enough again to suggest they are on track.
“I was pleased with the intensity on defence, which was lacking in the first game, and I would say that we are now in a good space heading towards the Super Rugby start,” said Plumtree.
“This tournament has been good for us in that it has offered a high level of competition with a big crowd for the final match. That helped get our excitement back, and playing a friendly in front of such a big crowd is a good experience for the players.
“We have a couple of weeks now till our first game in Super Rugby and this is when the excitement of the players will start to lift. I have no doubt we are going to be up there when the competition starts.”
Plumtree was pleased with the way his depth was tested and came through in the Neo Africa series, with the two locks brought in to cover for the injured trio of Alistair Hargreaves, Ross Skeate and Steven Sykes both coming through well against the Stormers.
“I thought that both Gerhard Mostert and Anton Bresler did very well for us. Alistair’s problem, as you know, isn’t as bad as initially thought, and he will be back in time for our first game against the Cheetahs, and Ross will be back a week after that,” said Plumtree.
“So it looks like we are well served at lock. We also have depth in other areas. I was pleased with the fact that Jacques-Louis Potgieter ended up having quite a bit of game-time, particularly as Louis Ludik’s injury Is not serious and he will be back soon. We got a chance to try Odwa Ndungane at fullback.”
The Neo Africa game was the last match warm-up for the Sharks, it is now, as their coach put it, all about just ensuring a steady build-up in levels of excitement as the tournament kick-off approaches.