Johannesburg - The Sharks have been in what for this season has been a unique position for them, with all the players who took part in last week’s narrow 22-20 win over the Blues being available for Saturday’s big Vodacom Super Rugby derby against the Vodacom Bulls in Pretoria.
According to the supersport.com website
, all the players reported to training at the start of a week which suddenly has added significance now that the Sharks co-coaches, Grant Bashford and Hugh Reece-Edwards, and the senior players have realised that they are in a position that they’ve been in before. They have light at the end of the tunnel and know what they have to aim for to get a place in the play-offs.
Play-offs? Yes, that is a Sharks focus again now that the penny has dropped that 10 log points from the remaining two fixtures will get them to 52, which may just be enough to get them a top six spot. And it’s a position the Sharks have relished and thrived on in the past, so who says they can’t do it again.
At the start of each season the Sharks, more than any other team, appear to know how long the Super Rugby campaign is and there are times they appear to save themselves. Perhaps it comes down to having so many Springboks who won’t be taking a break during the June international window when some other franchises have a lot of down time and an opportunity to recuperate.
But as Bashford relates, put a gun to the players’ heads and tell them they are on a knock-out footing, and suddenly they’re razor sharp and they cook. In 2010 they won several matches on the trot in the second half of the season before eventually succumbing right at the end to the Bulls, and in 2011 they got it right, finishing with a flourish as they beat the Bulls at Loftus in the last league game to qualify for the play-offs.
And no-one should need reminding of what happened last season, when the Sharks surged through the last two months of the season and at one stage threatened to confound the theories of sports science by winning the competition while playing all of their knock-out games away from home and against the backdrop of a flight schedule that would have worn out an airline pilot.
So Bashford hasn’t been shy to tell his charges what the mission at Loftus is this weekend – a haul of five log points by winning and scoring four tries.
“We have struggled to get four try bonus points this season but the way our pack is playing at the moment we are dangerous when we are in the strike zone and are in a position to maul, so who knows,” said Bashford in looking ahead to this week’s penultimate game of the league phase.
“We’re certainly going to go out and try and get the four tries, and of course if we do that we still need to win too. The way we look at it we need 10 points from these remaining games (the Sharks host the Kings in their final league match), so anything less than that won’t be good enough. We thought we were out of it, but thanks to the results of last week, we feel we have a realistic chance.”
Those results were the defeat of the Cheetahs by the Stormers, and the Blues’ loss to his own team. If the Blues beat the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein this week and then return to New Zealand and lose to the Chiefs, the Sharks can leapfrog both teams into sixth place, remembering of course that the Waratahs, who are also marginally ahead of them at this stage, can do the same but only have one match remaining.
“For that matter, the Stormers, who are level with us on log points and are just behind by a couple of points on log difference, also have a chance. For both of us it’s a big challenge but not an impossible one,” said the Sharks co-coach.
“The good thing is that we also know that if we do make it beyond the league phase, we will likely have the strongest team we have fielded all season playing for us. JP Pietersen is due back next week, and among others, so is Meyer Bosman.”
With the Bulls suddenly picking up injuries too and having lost their two main ball carriers in Arno Botha and Pierre Spies, who are both also lineout forwards, plus Juandre Kruger heading overseas, the Sharks should certainly feel they are in with a chance at Loftus.
“Our backs have been decimated by injury and remain so but we have our top forwards back now and any coach will tell you that they would rather have a strong forward pack than good backs and a weak pack,” said Bashford.
That pack was of course assembled and moulded by previous coach John Plumtree, so if the Sharks go on to record a fairytale triumph in Super Rugby in 2013, the now ex-coach would have left a fitting legacy. And as extensions of Plumtree, so would Bashford and Plumtree, both of whom are heading into their last two weeks with the Sharks senior team.
The Sharks team will be finalized on Thursday but is unlikely to differ from the one that beat the Blues.