At the halfway mark of the Super Rugby pool phase, many observers were ready to prematurely write the Sharks off as also-rans for another season, but coach John Plumtree says they never stopped believing they could turn their fortunes around.
A fifth loss of the season towards the end of April left the Sharks precariously placed on the overall standings, knowing that another defeat could well spell the end of their quest for play-off qualification.
However, once returning from their long-awaited first bye week in round 10, the Durban side has gone unbeaten in May and is now determined to complete an impressive mini- comeback with a fifth successive win when taking on the Lions in Johannesburg this Saturday.
It’s the final pool game before the break for the international matches, and another victory would set the Sharks up to push not only for a play-off place, but home advantage.
Last year, the Sharks finished sixth to claim the final qualification spot for the knockout stage, but the long journey to New Zealand to face the Crusaders eliminated any realistic likelihood of emerging victorious.
Plumtree said they were certainly setting their sights higher this season, although he emphasised that all their hard work would be undone if they lost focus and came unstuck against the bottom-of-the-log Lions.
“We don’t want to have to play a play-off game away from home, that’s why you want to be in the top four. Everyone was doubting us at the beginning of the season, but six of our first eight games were away from home and we had a number of injuries to the forward pack.
“We didn’t have the momentum and were struggling, but we knew if we could get on a run at home we would be able to kick on. It was just about surviving a bit of hardship as a group and then having a real crack.”
While the injury-hit Lions have endured an abysmal run of 11 successive defeats, the Sharks will be aware that the Currie Cup champs will be viewing this Saturday’s clash as their one shot at relative redemption.
In a repeat of last year’s domestic final, there is no doubt that the Lions will lift their efforts to another level for the derby against the Sharks.