Johannesburg - The Sharks’ clash against the Stormers Saturday night marks the completion of an eight-match sequence that has so far seen the Durban side take control of their destiny and strengthen their position at the top of the log.
After returning from their second bye at the beginning of April, the Sharks faced a defining phase of their campaign, a run of eight consecutive games, four of which were to be played overseas.
Up to this point, a return of five wins from their past seven matches has spoken volumes for their character and championship credentials.
To put their achievement of three wins from four on tour into perspective, bear in mind that not one of the four other South African sides has won a single game overseas this season.
Yet for all the hard work that the Sharks have done over the past month and a half of action, one final battle remains before they can take the opportunity to reassess and refresh during the June international break.
A win on Saturday evening would see the Sharks secure top spot in the South African conference and guarantee at least one home play-off. It would also reduce the pressure associated with the last two pool games after the Test window.
Director of rugby Jake White acknowledged that there was plenty to play for on Saturday night.
“We’ve broken our season down into segments,” he said. “We initially had two games and then a bye, four and then a bye.
“Now we’ve had eight matches in a row, and we always knew these were going to be the eight tough weeks.
“We don’t have to do anything differently or try to be flashy, we just have to win.
“The nice thing is that the boys know they have some time off after this weekend, so we can put everything into this fixture. As long as we keep winning, then no one can catch up to us, and that’s what you want. You don’t want team A to have to beat team B for you to go through.”
Significantly, the Sharks have welcomed back influential flank Marcell Coetzee for this encounter, but the Stormers have lost Jean de Villiers, Deon Fourie and Schalk Burger to injury.
However, the Cape side have won their past two games and discovered some good form at the back end of a disappointing campaign, and White emphasised that nothing could be taken for granted.
“If you had asked at the start of the season which teams were going to be dangerous, everyone would have backed the Stormers,” he said.
“They were good last year, then they got to the Currie Cup final, and they are one team that is very hard to break down.
“They didn’t have a good run early on, but they are definitely improving.
“They’re playing better rugby now, and their confidence will be much better than it was three or four weeks ago.”
And although the Stormers – similarly to the Sharks – are renowned as a defensively strong outfit, White said he felt that the Cape Town side had added an extra edge to their offensive play in recent weeks.
“They did score a few more tries last weekend, and held the Cheetahs scoreless, so they’re probably getting the balance right on attack and defence.”
Nevertheless, Stormers coach Allister Coetzee said he had no doubt that today’s match would be his team’s “biggest challenge of the year”.
“The Sharks are not the current Super Rugby log leaders for nothing,” said Coetzee.
“They’ve grown in confidence as the tournament has progressed, and their win over the Crusaders… says a lot about their character.”
Independent on Saturday