Durban – Last Saturday, the Sharks rediscovered their winning form with a dominant display against the Stormers, and tomorrow evening, the Durban side will be looking to send out an unequivocal reminder of their championship qualities when they take on the Highlanders in a Super Rugby qualifier.
It’s been a long and sometimes rocky road to the knockout stage for the Sharks, but the only thing that matters now is doing whatever it takes to progress to a coveted semi-final berth.
“The bottom line is that there is no bonus point to worry about in a knockout game, you just have to win, it doesn’t matter how,” impassioned director of rugby Jake White emphasised yesterday.
“It means you can’t take too many risks, and the reality is that neither team is going to, it’s about being game ready, exiting well out of your own half, and taking the opportunities you do create. In play-off rugby, you won’t get many opportunities, perhaps just two or three, and the team who reacts quickest – and takes them – wins the game. I don’t believe teams will run out of their 22 or try fancy chip kicks when they know it’s a knockout game.”
As a franchise, this will be the 14th Super Rugby knockout match for the Sharks, and the third time since the latest expansion of the competition in 2011 that the Durbanites have progressed to the finals series.
By contrast, although this will be the High-landers’ sixth play-off in Super Rugby history, the last occasion they featured in the knockout phase of the competition being way back in 2002.
As it is, a number of current Sharks players would have been part of the team’s most recent play-off heroics in 2012, when the coastal side overcame enormous travel odds to complete an incredible journey to the final before coming unstuck against the Chiefs.
White said he was confident his Bok-laden Sharks team would be able to handle the pressure that comes with knockout rugby.
“What excites me the most is that this will be almost like a Test match, and it will involve that sort of style of rugby. We have a number of international players in our team – and so I take confidence out of the fact that in this group, a lot of these boys have played Test rugby. They understand what’s coming in the next couple of weeks.
“It’s a knockout game, so in a lot of ways, we don’t have to change much about what we’ve been doing,” he added. “Knockout style rugby is the one thing we’ve done consistently well throughout the season.”
In this regard, the Sharks will know the importance of winning both the territorial and breakdown battle, while also maintaining their impressive defensive structures that saw them concede just 22 tries in their 16 pool matches.
Victory for the Sharks tomorrow would set up a semi-final against the Crusaders in Christchurch next weekend, and White said they would relish the opportunity to defy the odds overseas.
“First off, we’re really just excited to be playing in front of our home crowd again, and if we get a win, then we can look forward to going back to New Zealand and possibly Australia.
“We know that 12 out of 18 titles have been won by the team hosting the final, but I truly believe that eventually a team that finishes outside of the top two is going to win this competition.” - The Star