Sharks look for killer kick
Durban - The Cell C Sharks have identified the accuracy of their kicking game as one of the key where they fell down against the Highlanders in the league phase of the Super Rugby and believe that correction of that aspect of their play is the key to winning Saturday’s play-off.
The supersport.com website reports that the Kiwi side, the sixth placed finishers on the final log to the Sharks’ third, will be returning to the scene of one of their most notable triumphs of an impressive season when they run out onto the Kings Park field on Saturday for what is effectively a quarterfinal.
The Highlanders scored four tries against the Sharks in the match that preceded their overseas tour, and while it was a bright moment for the visitors, it was a chastening one for the hosts.
It is one they haven’t forgotten, and veteran Sharks scrumhalf Charl McLeod agrees that the experience of losing to the Highlanders at the same venue just a few months ago should be beneficial to the Sharks in that it will make them more aware of what they should be wary of.
"One thing that is for sure is that we won’t be underestimating them," said McLeod.
"The Highlanders are a difficult team to play against, and they proved that when they played us last time.
"They will have massive confidence from that win and will come here believing they can win it.
"But we have worked on what let us down last time.
"Our kicking game and defence just wasn’t on song last time and that tripped us up.
"The main thing was that our kicking game just wasn’t accurate enough.
"The Highlanders have players who can punish you if you kick poorly, and in that game we just didn’t get out of our half and just gave them too many opportunities to counter-attack.
"They love broken play and we are going to have to keep away from that and limit their opportunities in this match."
All Black fullback Ben Smith was a key player in the Highlanders’ counter-attacking game in the league fixture, and McLeod believes his availability for this week will have an impact either way, depending on whether he is going to play or not.
Smith missed the league phase decider against the Crusaders in Christchurch last weekend because of a leg infection and his availability for Saturday is in the balance.
"He is very important to them, and he is also one of the captains, so it will make a difference," he said.
McLeod said the Newlands win over the Stormers last Saturday had been a huge confidence booster for the team, with the significance of the victory being accentuated in the way it confirmed to the Sharks players that the path they have been on for most of the season has been the right one.
"It was good at Newlands just to see that what we worked on doing from early in the year was working," said the scrumhalf.
"We went a bit away from our template in the recent matches and that was why we struggled.
"We went back to it in the Stormers game and we saw the difference we made.
"It was all about solid defence, the forwards working hard, better kicking and better kick and chase."
Now that the knock-outs have arrived and there are no longer try scoring bonus points or points differential, the Sharks’ experience of playing no-nonsense, basic percentage rugby should hold them in good stead.
"We have been playing knock-out rugby from the first game.
"We went away from that and it was why we fell away a bit, but now we are back to that and we have the belief that it can take us all the way."
Unless the Chiefs or Brumbies score an upset semifinal win on the other side of the draw, the Highlanders game could well be McLeod’s last at Kings Park as he prepares to hook up with French club Grenoble after Super Rugby, but he says that is not something he is thinking about.
"There is no emotion around personal stuff.
"This if finals rugby, we have three games in which to win the competition, and that is what we are focused on.
"It is all about the team," he said.
"There are a couple of guys who might be back this week, and that will be a big boost.
"Cobus (Reinach), Beast (Mtawarira) and Pat (Lambie) are all important members of the team and it does lift us to have them available again.
"I can’t remember how it was in 2012 and what we felt going into the Finals Series, but this time it is different as if we win on Saturday we fly overseas and then we will probably have to stay there for two weeks in order to win the trophy.
"We are fortunate to be starting the knock-outs with a home game, and hopefully we will get a big crowd in and then we will produce a performance that will create a platform for us to do well in our two games on the road.
"But we will treat each game on its merits.
"We are not looking at it as three games at the moment.
"We just have to get past this one, and then we can think about the next challenge."