Gavin Rich - SuperSport
Johannesburg - He never came out and said it directly, but Cell C Sharks director of rugby Jake White said enough at the post-match press conference following the Vodacom Super Rugby play-off qualifier to suggest Patrick Lambie will be wearing the No 10 jersey against the Crusaders.
According to the supersport.com website, the Sharks battled far more than most would have anticipated before securing a narrow 31-27 win over the Highlanders at Growthpoint Kings Park. The result secured them a return trip to Christchurch, the venue of their greatest triumph this season, for Saturday’s semifinal, and while it was a narrow squeak for the Sharks with the result in the balance right until the end, White remains upbeat about his team’s chances.
“The big thing that gives us confidence is that the two teams we would be likely to play to win the competition are both teams we have beaten this season,” said White.
“Ideally, we would have wanted to win comfortably, but that is not always possible at this stage of the competition. The way we look at it, we scored 31 points against the Highlanders and 34 against the Stormers the previous week, so that gives us momentum for the last couple of rounds.”
Indeed, but the Sharks would probably not have got home had it not been for the energy sapping effect that their forward dominance would have had on the Highlanders. Visiting coach Jamie Joseph admitted that all the problems they had in containing the Sharks’ pack had left them tired at the end.
But then the Sharks would be unlikely to have the same level of dominance at forward against the Crusaders, where the boot could well be on the other foot, so they may have to find other ways to win. That is where Lambie, and possibly scrumhalf Charl McLeod too, come into the picture.
“I am very proud of the way we came back to win this game. Many other teams might have relinquished it and faded after the Highlanders took the lead like they did,” said White.
“I thought in the last 20 minutes we played really well. It was some of our best rugby of the season during that period, and some of our best rugby in terms of linking our forwards and backs. As a whole, the bench definitely helped us. There’s no doubt when we get Charl and Pat, two senior players, onto the field that their experience tells under pressure.”
Starting scrumhalf Cobus Reinach has enjoyed a great season but he does have weaknesses, such as his box kicking, and those were exposed against the Highlanders. McLeod, who is on his way to French club Grenoble after Super Rugby, was outstanding against the Stormers in the previous game, and has a tendency to excel in really big matches, such as last year’s Currie Cup final in Cape Town.
So when White speaks about improved linking between backs and forwards, it could well be an indication that the Sharks will have a new halfback pairing in Christchurch. Not that he was giving too much away on Saturday night.
“I will have to sit down and think about it and can’t commit myself now,” he said.
Lambie has been out of rugby for four months with a torn bicep but he fitted seamlessly back into the team at a critical stage of the play-off match. Not only does he look the part at flyhalf, Steyn also looks better at inside centre than he does at pivot, where again he was exposed at the weekend. Moving Steyn back to the midfield, with Paul Jordaan going to outside centre and JP Pietersen, who struggled defensively against the Highlanders, shifting back to wing, might well be the way for the Sharks to go against the Crusaders.
And Lambie’s big match temperament, which did come through in those last minutes against the Highlanders, could be crucial to the Sharks’ chances if White decides to pick him. White spoke last week of the calmness that Lambie brings to those around him, and apparently it was added to the mix again in the last quarter at Kings Park, which was when the Sharks effectively won the match.
“Frans Steyn said to me himself afterwards that when Lambie and Charl came on they brought a sense of calmness,” said White.
The Sharks flew out to Australasia on Sunday, and White could face a difficult task getting some of the forwards ready for the game. Anton Bresler left the field against the Highlanders with what looked like a rib injury, but Stephan Lewies, who was withdrawn from the qualifier at the last minute, should be fit to play against the Crusaders.
Thomas “The Tank Engine” du Toit enjoyed another solid outing at loosehead so the need for Tendai “The Beast” Mtawarira to be back against the Crusaders would appear less critical than it might otherwise have been. Of course, as a Springbok and a player who boasts so much experience, White would want him to be there for such a big occasion game.