Gavin Rich - SuperSport
Johannesburg - Sharks coach John Plumtree has hinted that his team has now reached a stage of the season where they might have to shelve the quest for the entertaining rugby that wowed their fans last year and win ugly if they have to.
The Sharks go into a series of four matches that are all must wins if they hope to stay alive in the competition into the play-off stage. It was interesting to note from his words at a press conference at Mr Price Kings Park on Tuesday that the focus might have shifted slightly for the Sharks from the previous week, when they were poised to over-take the Stormers at the top of the South African conference.
While not giving up hope of overtaking the Stormers if the Cape team should slip up in some of their remaining matches (they need to lose twice for the Sharks to overtake them now), it appears that the emphasis has now shifted to ensuring that the Durbanites just finish in the top six, which would ensure they take part in the quarter-final round.
“The players know we cannot afford to drop another game as there are pretty much four teams vying for fifth and sixth spot,” said Plumtree.
“Those four sides have all been inconsistent this year, winning a few more than they’ve lost, but it’s going to be the side that holds its nerve and plays the best rugby that kicks on. We’ve only got one more home game and then three away so the challenge that faces us is a massive one.”
A win on Saturday will considerably ease the Sharks’ task as the Waratahs are one of the bigger challengers among the group of teams that Plumtree mentioned. But he noted that the Waratahs face a stiff challenge that could become much tougher if they get knocked over in Durban.
“If the Waratahs lose to us it will be tough for them as they then go onto Pretoria to play the Bulls. The other team in that group battling for fifth and sixth spot (the other being the Bulls) is the Highlanders, who have a couple of tough derby games to look forward to in the final weeks, so it is going to be very interesting from here.
“If we do the job this weekend and the Waratahs lose to the Bulls, that effectively puts them out. That’s the great thing about his competition, four games out and everyone’s talking about finals. It’s great for everyone, except the coaches (who have to handle the stress).”
It was when speaking of the Waratahs that Plumtree hinted that the Sharks may have to change tack a bit after a season where the quest to play the running style that won them the Currie Cup, and the failure to get it together, particular in the South African derbies, has been a talking point.
“The Waratahs have had some injury problems too. They’ve lost Wycliff Palu and Phil Waugh, and one or two backs, like Drew Mitchell. They have some senior players out, so it has been a difficult season for them,” said Plumtree.
“The thing about the Waratahs and the Australians is that they like entertainment and winning with it, but have figured out this year that if they can only win without entertaining, then that is a track they have to go down. We want to do the same, we want to entertain and win. We want to play attractive rugby at our home ground and it’s what we based our Currie Cup on.
“But we haven’t always been able to do that this year. So like the Waratahs, we might have to think on embarking on a different way forward as well. The South African culture in sport is mainly not about how you cross the line, but just so long as you cross that line first.”
The Sharks would have noted that the Stormers have scored far fewer tries than them this season and generally play a style of rugby considered ugly by some of their supporters, who want to see the Cape side play a possession based game not unlike what the Sharks did last season.
However the Stormers, by engaging their approach, have won two more games than the Sharks have and even though they haven’t picked up as many bonus points as the Sharks, it has enabled them to go five points clear at the top of the SA conference.
The question of course is whether the Sharks have the team to adopt a more conservative, percentage orientated approach. Their forwards just haven’t played well enough for most of the season for them to bank on the forward superiority needed for that game, and flyhalf Patrick Lambie is not really a player geared towards a kicking orientated approach.