Canberra – Who could have scripted this a year ago? That’s the question director of rugby Jake White quite rightly raised when contemplating tomorrow’s top-of-the-table battle between the Sharks and Brumbies.
Indeed, it’s a clash that has all the makings of a classic.
Not only is it a grudge match in the sense that the Sharks will be looking to set the record straight after suffering a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Brumbies in Durban last season, but then there’s the much-hyped matter of White’s so-called “homecoming”.
Plenty has already been said and written about White’s return to Canberra, where he coached the Brumbies for two seasons before joining the Sharks at the end of last year, but the Durban side have distanced themselves from any such distraction.
“All this talk was inevitable, but my message to the players has been that this is not about me,” White reiterated yesterday. “It’s simply another rugby game, and it just so happens to be the No1 team taking on No2? It’s a massive match, one that is set up beautifully, and hopefully it will draw a really big crowd.”
And, although the Sharks won’t receive a warm reception from the notoriously hostile Canberra crowd, White said it was something that wouldn’t faze them.
“If there is hostility, it will be because I’m sure people are a bit disappointed that I didn’t stay (with the Brumbies), but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There are not many coaches who are able to leave on their own terms.” More importantly, White emphasised that the Sharks’ focus has revolved around the significance of this match in terms of their standing in the competition.
“This is going to be a really big test for us. Look, we’ve lost Pat Lambie, Pieter-Steph du Toit and now Marcell Coetzee (to injury). So now we have to see if we are good enough to front up and get a result. That’s the challenge we face, to see where we are in terms of the pecking order in the competition.”
Tomorrow’s result will undoubtedly go some distance towards gauging whether the Sharks have what it takes to go all the way this season, particularly in light of the disruptive injuries that continue to take its toll on the team.
White admitted that even he was still learning just what this Sharks team are made of. “I wanted to get the Brumbies to the final in three years, and we did it in two, and you can see they are good enough to win the competition now.
“With the Sharks, it’s a different beast all together. This is a settled team with well-known players, and there’s a huge expectation of them back home.
“I’ve only been with this side for six months, so I still need to learn how they cope under pressure, and how they respond when they play away from home, or lose two games in a row.
“The only way I can get a feel for where this team can get to is by staying with them for an extended period and experiencing those sorts of things with them,” he added.
While White has picked a side packed with pace, the Brumbies team have remained largely unchanged from last weekend, although one significant inclusion sees powerful 120kg flanker Fotu Auelua return to the starting line-up after recovering from a long-term injury.
And as Brumbies director of rugby Laurie Fisher revealed, it’s no secret why they wanted to get the big Samoan involved.
“Fotu brings aggression and physicality to our side, which will be valuable against a big South African forward pack like the Sharks.
“They are leading the competition and have threats right across the park, so an improved performance from last week is vital if we are going to walk away with the points.”
Today: Chiefs v Blues 9.35am; Rebels v Hurricanes 11.40am
Tomorrow: Highlanders v Lions 9.35am; Brumbies v Sharks 11.40am; Cheetahs v Force 5pm; Bulls v Stormers 7pm
Sunday: Reds v Crusaders 8am. - The Star