Sharks still aiming high
The Sharks have spent so much time in the Last Chance Saloon over the past few seasons that sometimes you get the feeling that their problem may be that have become slightly inebriated and just enjoy the place so much.
“Hey dude, what you doing? You’re playing too well. Don’t be an idiot. We really don’t want to be winning this game because it might just get it out of here and we like it here. Comfortable is boring.”
Is that imagined conversation between Sharks players far-fetched? Probably, but if you look at the Sharks’ record over the past three seasons in Vodacom Super Rugby you do get the impression that they are at their happiest – and at their best – when they are living on the edge.
The 2010 season threw up several examples of what we’re talking about. The Durban team started what was then still the Super 14 disastrously, and found themselves in a situation after five games where they had to win every match from then on to sneak into the play-offs. Suddenly, when the chips were down and the last chance saloon was a weekly feature in KZN newspaper headlines, the Sharks began to cook.
And they damn nearly succeeded in their impossible task too. They won seven of their last eight games, with just the Bulls at Loftus preventing them from crossing what everyone assumed was a bridge too far.
The sequence continued last year, though in less obvious form. A slump after successive losses to the Chiefs and Crusaders led their coach to issue forth the message that “It’s now or never” and they responded in style by beating the Hurricanes.
Later in the year they were again at the point of never return but managed to beat the Waratahs, and it was the same again against their bogey team at their bogey venue – the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein.
It’s only speculation, but all this win-at-all-costs may well have contributed to their winning mindset on the big day of the season, the one where they upset the Bulls at Loftus to secure a place in the extended play-offs.
And so to this season, and the trend continues – defeat to the Waratahs sends them to the brink, they respond with a rare win over the Brumbies in Canberra; they fall apart against the Hurricanes but beat the Blues the next week.
Beating the Chiefs in their most recent game would have given them a degree of comfort, but no, who wants comfort? Not the Sharks, so once more it is into the breach this week, this time against the Highlanders at Mr Price Kings Park.
Knowing their knack for winning when they have to, who would bet against them?
The new format in Super Rugby means that even if they lose on Saturday, which would mean a sixth defeat, they would still retain a chance of winning the trophy as they would still be in the running for the wild-card place they would secure by finishing in the top six.
But after last year, when the Sharks had to fly to Nelson on the south island of New Zealand the week after their great win in Pretoria, coach John Plumtree knows that is the hard way of doing it.
In fact, he might even consider it the impossible way of doing it, for the fighting talk coming out of Durban this week seems to suggest that a conference win, which means making up the 10 log points currently separating them from the Stormers and Bulls, remains the target.
“Playing a quarterfinal in New Zealand is no fun. We have to set our sights higher than that,” said Plumtree.
“Making the play-offs in this competition is a good effort. It’s a tough competition, but we want to talk about going further than that. We believe in ourselves, and we want to do well. If we can sort out some things internally and get our big players playing really well, and improve our teamwork by a couple of percent, then hopefully we’ll be alright.
“We’re seventh at the moment but we’ve lost five games and still managed to pick up bonus points in four of them because the games have been so close. We’re not far away, we just need to keep boxing on, believing in each other and working really hard for each other. That’s going to be the key.”
What will keep Plumtree and his team believing is the knowledge that they are due to play both the conference front-runners at home in the remaining segment of the competition.
A win in those games would effectively amount to them doubling the points haul in the sense that it will propel them forward while at the same time bringing the opposing team back towards them.