This time last year, the Sharks were in Dunedin for a tour fixture that went horribly wrong and contributed significantly to derailing their season.
The Highlanders had lost every game and were firmly entrenched at the bottom of the log, while the 2012 finalists were expected to win and get their faltering campaign back on track.
But the South Islanders broke their duck and the Sharks’ morale never fully recovered. The Durbanites also left Springbok Frans Steyn in hospital to face an operation to fix a severe calf injury. It was yet another injury to a key player in a doomed campaign.
The Sharks face the Highlanders tonight in very different circumstances, but the result is no less important. As captain Bismarck du Plessis put it: “It is very much a must-win for us. Most definitely so. We leave on tour the next day and won’t have home-ground advantage for five weeks. There will be no lack of desire for this one.”
The Highlanders will fancy their chances of repeating their upset of last year. They will again relish being the underdogs and their coach, former All Black flank Jamie Joseph, will be encouraging his charges to make the most of their “nothing to lose” situation.
Sharks’ coach Jake White understands full well that there is no underestimating a Highlanders team that beat the Bulls 27-20 in their last game and have won three of their four fixtures.
“Two seasons ago, they were the form team in the first five to six weeks of the tournament and they were unbeaten when they came to the Brumbies, and we beat them that day,” recalled White, who coached the Brumbies to the final last year.
“Last year, they were really disappointing,” he said. “What they’ve learnt is that they don’t want to go there again.
“Jamie Joseph learnt a lot from last year. They’ve lost key players, but appear to be playing with a lot more happiness, understanding and passion than they did last year.”
If the Sharks are to subdue the spirited challenge that is set to come their way tonight, they will leave for Melbourne tomorrow with a comfortable cushion at the top of the SA Conference in the knowledge that points will be much more difficult to come by in the next month.
There is still a way to go in this competition and a lot of it is away from home for a Sharks team that will have had seven of their first nine fixtures at Kings Park. They have to cash in tonight, while the going is good.
“We want to control our own destiny by winning the SA Conference,” White said. ”It becomes irrelevant who you play because you want to win every game.
“We want to make sure we win the competition and the simple way is to beat everyone in front of us, regardless of who they are. We have to be focused on getting the job done.”
White said the players had discussed what was needed to contain the Highlanders.
“There are a couple of things we have added to our game that we think will put them under pressure,” he added.
Mostly, it comes down to the Sharks’ superb pack cutting the dangerous Kiwi backs off at source. It is always the way …– The Star