Sharks need to retain focus
Gavin Rich - SuperSport
Johannesburg - Their win over the Crusaders emphatically answered the question that was asked of the Cell C Sharks at the start of their overseas tour – are they worth their pre-season status as favourites to win Vodacom Super Rugby?
According to the supersport.com website, the Brumbies game the previous week was supposed to be a defining one in the sense that the Australian side was the other team at the top of the log. However, the weather conditions in the Canberra game left the question unanswered as there was little rugby played in the game.
In truth, there wasn’t a heck of a lot of rugby played by the Sharks against the Crusaders either, but the mental strength shown in the game most emphatically did ensure the question was answered.
In winning at a venue that has been notoriously inhospitable to South African teams – the Cats did win away against Crusaders 13 years ago but the match wasn’t played in Christchurch – the Sharks underlined that they do deserve their status as favourites and they do have the potential to become champions.
However, while the crossroads in the season that the Sharks had arrived at when the tour started has now been passed, that does not mean that the path ahead is not without potential bumps. And it is something coach Jake White might have been thinking about when he watched the DHL Stormers and then the Toyota Cheetahs do his men a favour by knocking over the Western Force and the Brumbies respectively this weekend.
The Sharks travel to Bloemfontein and Cape Town after the break for the June internationals, and it must be in the back of White’s mind that his team could end up paying for their good form by providing the bulk of the Springboks that will be in action in the test matches. He will be hoping to have Patrick Lambie back, for flyhalf remains an issue and having Lambie at pivot and Frans Steyn at inside centre was key to his planning this year.
However, he could quite easily lose a couple of players during the international phase, just as the Bulls did when Pierre Spies and Arno Botha were injured at the corresponding stage of last season. So White might well be issuing the following instruction to his team this week: “What you must do, do it now.”
In other words, the Sharks need to knock over the Blues this coming weekend in Auckland and the Stormers in Durban the following week and thus ensure that they have breathing space going into the last phase of the Super Rugby season, when the variables may come into play.
The Stormers, assuming they will have a lot of injured players, including Eben Etzebeth, back in the mix by then, and with no play-off games to worry about, could be in a particularly vengeful and difficult mood in that last game given that they have set themselves the goal of not losing again at home this season. The Sharks should be hoping to be in the same position that the Bulls were when they visited Newlands at the same stage of the 2010 season – assured of top spot and in a position to rest players.
So it is understandable that White has told reporters travelling with the team in Australasia that this is a time to retain focus and for the players to keep their feet on the ground.
“It’s a massive win against a championship team, but in the greater scheme of things we haven’t won anything yet,” said White.
“We’ve just won a game in New Zealand. It’s a wonderful achievement, but we have to keep our feet on the ground.”
Indeed, and a loss to the Blues, who were probably a team at the start of the tour that the Sharks were confident they could beat, would cancel out the good work of Christchurch and give the Chiefs and Brumbies a chance to catch the Sharks on the log. In other words the pressure is not off, and in fact it might just be starting.
The immediate headache that White faces will revolve around Jean Deysel, the man sent off in the 17th minute in Christchurch for stomping an opponent in the face. There could well be further suspension given the nature of the incident, and while the Sharks proved they can win with 14 men this past weekend, they will definitely be a weaker team if they start against the Blues without Deysel.
There is just a six day turn-around between Christchurch and Auckland so White will be asking his players to move on quickly from the Crusaders win for as he says, the job is not done.