‘Canes: Back to ‘ugly’ for Sharks?

    2016-05-03 11:24

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town – There is just no let-up, it seems, in the “key games” for the Sharks. There is no let-up in the seriously taxing ones, either.

    We always knew this was going to be a near-ceaselessly uphill Vodacom Super Rugby trek for Gary Gold’s charges, given the unusually harrowing nature of their 2016 roster … characterised by demanding travel and an over-supply of formidable New Zealand opponents.

    Their three-match mission to the land of the long white cloud, where both the Webb Ellis Cup and Super Rugby trophies are currently housed with some security, may be complete, but their “reward” for a borderline respectable haul of six points from a possible 15 is an immediate home date with last season’s runaway ordinary-season table-toppers (albeit beaten finalists) and currently in-form Hurricanes.

    The very fact that they are back at Kings Park at last will be some comfort, but remember that they enter Saturday’s fixture (15:00) off a slog back through time zones, whereas the ‘Canes are now settled and tickled pink in South Africa after their 50-17 demolition of the highly-touted Lions in Johannesburg.

    Also at the back of the Sharks squad’s minds will be the thought that they go the “other way” on the planet soon after the dust settles on Saturday’s clash, courtesy of a once-off visit to Buenos Aires.

    Talk about hardly having time to put the passport in the drawer: in a situation which only underlines the cruel nature of their agenda this season, they will run into a Jaguares side suddenly basking in a confidence-building thrashing of the Kings, and able to slam into the Sharks off the advantage of their own bye weekend in the coming round.

    But there are no bonus points for whingeing or crying in Super Rugby, even if every Friday or Saturday must seem like a final to the Sharks at present.

    They have to try to get themselves suitably up for the Hurricanes’ challenge, mentally and physically, given the thought of just how strongly a win would bring them back into the race with the Lions for supremacy and a guaranteed home quarter-final in Africa Conference 2.

    Lose to the men from Wellington and the Sharks will instead stay a few points adrift of the Jo’burgers, having played an extra game, and reinstated as far likelier candidates only for a wildcard berth in the playoffs if they can even manage that.

    Tipping the Sharks as favourites against the Hurricanes will be an exercise not taken lightly by many of their more sober-minded fans: the stark reality is that New Zealand sides currently have a 100 percent record on our shores this season; two wins for the Crusaders (Sharks and Lions), one for the Chiefs in a single SA fixture (Kings) and that champagne tour opener for the ‘Canes at Emirates Airline Park last Saturday.

    Of course the Sharks have the material at their disposal to potentially end that hot Kiwi streak – I’d give the embattled Kings less chance of beating the Blues in the later Port Elizabeth kick-off, wouldn’t you? – but exactly how to go about the job will be something significantly burdening Gold’s mind over the next few days.

    In some respects, he is caught between a rock and hard place on this one: there is a clamour for the Sharks to play a more daring, ball-in-hand game and we saw seeds of that at times on the tour.

    But they also earned their lone win – against the Highlanders in Dunedin – with a strong accent on dogged defence and a more “confrontational” approach to things.

    Gold and his closest confidantes will also have made earnest mental notes from group arch-rivals the Lions’ fortunes against a quartet of NZ foes thus far.

    On each occasion, Warren Whiteley and company have stuck to their often highly praiseworthy principle of trying to play vibrant, 15-man rugby a la the New Zealand penchant … yet in the cold light of day, it has brought only a 25 percent win rate as things stand.

    While it brought them a momentous 36-32 away triumph over the Chiefs, it also saw them comprehensively beaten 34-15 in Dunedin, edged in an 80-point Highveld thriller by the Crusaders, and now more seriously thumped by the ‘Canes who cashed in royally on the Lions just getting too wild and woolly in their approach.

    Certainly, South African sides do need to learn to hold onto possession a bit more against slick NZ outfits, to aid in giving them better territorial traction and points-scoring opportunities, but we have also seen the highly damaging effects of trying to be too “cute” against them.

    My strong suspicion is that, with result on Saturday of more premium importance than the manner in which it is achieved, the Sharks will try to slow down the tempo against the ‘Canes and rely more on suffocation and physicality than any notable expansiveness to overcome the always up-tempo tourists.

    There’s something else to consider: long-range weather forecasts suggest very meaningful amounts of rain over the weekend for Durban, especially in the few hours leading up to the clash, which might make things difficult for expansive rugby anyway.

    I don’t believe you’ll hear too many grumbles on that score from the Sharks camp …

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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    Friday, 15 February 2019
    • Chiefs v Highlanders, FMG Stadium Waikato 08:35
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    Saturday, 16 February 2019
    • Blues v Crusaders, Eden Park 08:35
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