The Sharks have battled their way through 10 successive weeks of Super Rugby action, having had to adapt and adjust in the absence of injured stars such as Willem Alberts, S’bura Sithole, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Patrick Lambie.
More recently, Ryan Kankowski and JP Pietersen have also been unavailable as the result of injuries, while Bismarck du Plessis, Jean Deysel and Frans Steyn continue to serve their much-publicised suspensions.
It’s been a two-month period filled with a variety of challenges, but before the Sharks can finally take some time to regroup during next week’s long-awaited bye, they have one more massive battle in store against the Bulls at Kings Park this evening.
In this regard, the Sharks have focused solely on what will be required to secure a much-needed victory, knowing that any thoughts about log standings or play-off permutations can wait until next week.
A return to winning ways would serve as the perfect tonic on the eve of their four-week overseas tour – the Sharks first play the Highlanders in Dunedin on May 1 – and would keep their play-off ambitions alive. Key to this is the fact that after today’s game, Du Plessis will return from his ban, while Steyn will have served his suspension by the time the second tour match arrives against the Hurricanes on May 9.
Alberts and Sithole have also just recently returned from injury, while Pietersen and Kankowski will be available to tour. Furthermore, influential lock Stephan Lewies made his long-awaited return from injury in the Vodacom Cup last night, so he may well come into consideration, while a spot could be kept open for star centre Paul Jordaan, who recently returned to training as well.
So any way you look at it, the Sharks’ squad is set to be considerably bolstered in the near future, and so if they can keep themselves in the Super Rugby hunt with a win today, suddenly the team’s prospects may not look so gloomy.
Make no mistake, the overseas leg is going to be a massively challenging one, with games against the Highlanders, Hurricanes, Waratahs and Reds, but the Sharks have always been a team that traditionally enjoys touring.
Last year, the Sharks came away with three wins out of four, which included a historic victory over the Crusaders in Christchurch, and with reinforcements now set to arrive, they will believe that a similar haul could be possible again.
Yet this probably hinges on their ability to secure a much-needed confidence boost by beating an in-form Bulls team today, and this remains far easier said than done.
In fact, considering the fact that the Lions have a bye, and that the Sharks still find themselves just four points adrift of the South African-conference leading Bulls, a win today could completely change the complexion of the standings.
“It could be a weekend of big moves,” Sharks director of rugby Gary Gold mused this week. “Obviously when you have a big derby like this, that old cliché of the two-shot swing applies. It’s going to make a significant difference to the table this weekend, and so I’m really excited that we’re playing a local derby because of that.”
And although the Sharks will have had to play 10 games on the trot before their first bye, Gold said the break could come at just the right time.
“It will be very important, it’s late in the season to have a bye, but I’m looking at it optimistically. We’ve weathered the storm so far, and we could still find ourselves in a reasonably good position. So a bye will be a good way for us to get away from rugby, reflect on what’s going on, and probably look at some nice new plans for us before we go on tour.”
Those plans will be largely influenced by today’s result, though, and in this regard, this Sharks team will need to produce a brave, passionate and accurate performance against a powerful Bulls side.
“With the likes of Handre Pollard and Jesse Kriel, the Bulls now have some lethal threats on attack,” Gold said. “They first look to soften you up front with their big strong forwards, using their driving game to hurt you, and then they unleash their attack.
“That’s the balance they’ve been looking to develop, and they have a few more strings to their bow now. That’s what makes them so dangerous.”
Original source: Sharks take aim at Bulls