Make or break fortnight for Sharks
Johannesburg - The Sharks arrived back in Durban at the weekend feeling they had missed an opportunity but they can make up for it if they win two tough derby matches scheduled for Kings Park over the next two weeks.
The Sharks face the Bulls on Saturday and then the Stormers a week later and will see wins in both games as a non-negotiable if they want to catch the Lions in the battle for South African conference supremacy, according to supersport.com website.
The Sharks were rightly kicking themselves for letting a gilt-edged chance to win two consecutive matches on New Zealand soil slip when they relinquished the nine point lead they enjoyed going into the last three minutes of their final tour match against a Hurricanes team they mostly dominated through the 80 minutes.
The Durbanites looked like they had the match won when Tyler Paul went over for a try with less than six minutes remaining, but in a finish that was not completely unlike the Sharks’ infamous last gasp defeat at the hands of the Bulls in the 2007 final, the Hurricanes managed to get enough momentum to score 10 points and win the game.
The Sharks were not helped by their discipline in the final part of the match, with the game extending well beyond the hooter as the Hurricanes profited from a sequence of penalties and played several minutes on penalty advantage. Sharks coach Robert du Preez told the Durban rugby media that he was disappointed to miss out on what should have been a famous victory.
“We will take a hard look at our play in the late stages of the game,” said Du Preez.
“We really should not have put ourselves in a position to concede that match winning try.”
In this season where away wins have become a rarity for all teams, the late fade was a missed opportunity for the Sharks. Two wins in a country where no other South African team has won this year, and where the Lions are due to tour shortly, would have been a good leg up for the Sharks ahead of a sequence of three home games. They have a bye week after the Stormers game and then host the Highlanders.
After their big win over the Stormers, the Lions now hold a comfortable 11 point lead in the local conference over the now second placed Sharks, but the Sharks do have a game in hand on the Lions, who along with the Stormers have their first bye this week.
So, the Sharks can feel they have a chance to at least partially make up for that lost opportunity and make some inroads into the Lions’ lead if they win against the Bulls and the Stormers. The Lions will be starting a four match overseas tour the day the Sharks host the Stormers, and if the trend of home wins in the competition continues, then there is a chance that the Sharks could be breathing down the Lions’ necks by the time they take their second bye.
Neither match will be easy and what might be gnawing at the back of the Sharks’ minds is the potential for both the South African teams to present a bigger challenge to their pack than what they were confronted with against the Blues and Hurricanes. The Sharks’ game has grown a lot over the past two weeks but they do rely heavily on forward dominance and on inside centre Andre Esterhuizen’s ability to get them across the advantage line.
But they will certainly be going into the home sequence of matches that could make or break their season with confidence and, even though they didn’t win in Napier, some momentum.
“Our performance was a big step up from the Blues game, so we are very pleased with that. We did everything we could to win the game and came agonisingly close. There was a lot of disappointment because the guys gave their all. Everybody played well, including the bench, but we leaked two soft tries that I am not happy about and then we could not close the game out, despite having opportunities to do so.”
The two soft tries that Du Preez would be referring to were two of the three tries scored by the Hurricanes in the first half where the hosts profited from what could be referred to as soft moments from the Sharks. Those tries kept the Hurricanes in the game in the first half when they should really have been shut out.
Indeed, even though the Sharks led by eight points at halftime, their advantage could have been a lot more such was their dominance of the 2016 champions who once again were made to look ordinary without their star flyhalf Beauden Barrett. The Hurricanes were also without Barrett when they suffered their only defeat so far against the Bulls in Pretoria.
Du Preez is right to be disappointed that his team relinquished their advantage but he is also right to be proud of his men and the massive attitude shift that was evident in the last two weeks. Just how that came about, who was involved and what meetings were held behind closed doors overseas is the Sharks’ secret but whatever was said and decided has brought about the desired result. Now the Sharks need to continue their improvement against the Bulls.