Durban - Director of rugby Jake White admitted to having a sense of déjà vu this week as he prepared the Sharks for Saturday night’s critical Super Rugby match against the Cheetahs. A place in the play-offs is secure but the Sharks need victory to improve their chances of hosting a semi-final and final.
Judging by the contrasting log positions of the Sharks and the Cheetahs, the Bloemfontein team will come into today’s clash with nothing to lose, but White reckons the Durban side will also have the freedom to express themselves.
Having wrapped up the South African conference before the international break last month, the Sharks are in the privileged position of occupying a guaranteed play-off position regardless of what happens over the final two rounds of pool fixtures.
With the competition rules dictating that the respective conference winners will automatically occupy the top three positions on the overall log, White has had the opportunity to mix and match his selections, while benching a few battle-weary Boks.
In making these decisions, White said he had relied on the experience gained in a similar scenario, when he was the coach of the Brumbies.
“Last year with the Brumbies, we lost to the Force in the last pool game, and then ended up beating the Cheetahs (in the play-offs) and then the Bulls (in the semi-final). It’s a little like that in that even if we lose this weekend, or next, we still get three games to win the competition.
“The Brumbies also lost a number of players to the Wallabies for the (British and Irish) Lions series, and so it’s given me some good insight into what we should be doing. We’ve spent a lot of time on conditioning and skills work (during the June break), and getting players mentally ready for the prospect of perhaps playing as many as three knockout games. It’s also about getting combinations and units ready that we knew we might have to call on.”
Arguably the most notable selection was that of Tim Swiel at flyhalf, but White said he was confident that the youngster would be ready for his return to the starting line-up.
“Tim is more settled in the squad now, and we’ve had a couple of weeks where both Cobus (Reinach), Tim and Frans (Steyn) weren’t at the Boks, so we’ve been able to get some combinations going. I’m looking forward to seeing whether that cohesion we’ve been working on will bear fruit against the Cheetahs.”
One should also not forget that if things do not go according to plan, White will have the luxury of calling on the cavalry off the bench, which includes Bismarck du Plessis, Willem Alberts, Tera Mtembu and Jannie du Plessis.
“We’ve had the opportunity to rest some Springboks who have been going for 12 weeks in a row, and I’m quite excited about the chances that these other guys are getting,” White said.
The Sharks will complete their pool fixtures against the Stormers in Cape Town next Saturday, with a top-two finish set to earn the Durban side a home semi-final.
However, White said this was not the be-all and end-all.
“Ideally you’d want to have all your play-offs at home, but we probably have the best away record in the competition, so it doesn’t really worry me where we play.
“This Cheetahs game is still really important… but it’s not often that you find yourself in a situation where the next result or two won’t necessarily influence whether you can still have a crack at winning the competition.
“In some ways we have nothing to lose… and we can hopefully express ourselves a bit more.”