The more the Sharks are written off for Saturday’s Super Rugby semi-final against the Crusaders, the better, reckons coach Jake White, who is an expert on the South African rugby psyche of performing best when expected to lose and playing badly when tipped to win.
“I see Waratahs coach Michael Cheika spoke about wanting to play the Brumbies (in the semi-final), and then the Crusaders (in the final), so people are assuming we’re here just to make up the numbers and that we aren’t a credible threat,” White said, and you can be sure he will be pumping this type of dismissive talk in the Sharks’ team meetings.
White, from his time as Springbok coach, knows that South African players cannot handle expectation but relish proving critics wrong.
The higher the odds stacked against them, the harder they will play.
It is a well-known fact that White and Cheika do not send each other Christmas cards, and have had a bitter rivalry (well publicised in the media) since the days when White coached the Brumbies, the fierce Aussie rivals of the New South Wales team.
White will love being disrespected by Cheika, the coach who could got into such a rage when his team were getting a hiding from the Sharks earlier this year (they lost 32-10) that he verbally abused a cameraman to such an extent that he got a record fine from Sanzar, not to mention a serious dressing down and a suspended sentence that will see him barred from coaching for six months if he again transgresses.
And White would love nothing better than to get past the Crusaders and then give the Waratahs the same medicine (should they beat White’s old team).
White also pointed out that this year the competition draw meant the Waratahs and the Crusaders would never play each other, which meant a top team not losing log points against another top team, and that is significant when a team like the Sharks missed out on a home semi-final by just one point.
White, no doubt (with a wry smile), also pointed out that the Sharks have beaten both the Waratahs and the Crusaders this season.
“Whatever the case, the bottom line is that we are rank underdogs,” White said.
“History tells us we’re up against it but history also says that trends get broken. We had to spend the whole of Tuesday recovering after the long travel, so it’s not ideal.
“When you’re the home team in this scenario, you sleep in your own bed, you train at your own facility, you’re settled. But in saying that, we have a massive amount of belief in our own ability.”
Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph admitted that his team took a lot of motivation out of the fact that people wrote them off all year, including the Sharks, and they beat the Sharks in Durban in May and came within a few minutes of repeating the result in last week’s quarter-final at Kings Park.
“We are taking confidence out of the fact that we beat the Crusaders last time we were here; we take a lot of confidence out of the fact that they have lost three games at home this year; that we’re underdogs and have not been given a hope. We enjoy that,” said White.
“There is no argument that it is tough in New Zealand, results over the years clearly show that, but at the same time, there are only the four best teams left – and we’re one of them – and we have to believe that means we are good enough to get the result. That’s the nice thing about this competition. Who would have thought we would have beaten the Crusaders last time?
“Who would have thought the Highlanders would make the play-offs, that they would finish sixth after finishing badly down the order last year?”
White said the players carrying injuries could only be properly assessed 24 hours after arrival because long distance travel causes soft tissue injuries to swell up.
“The players were fully assessed (yesterday).
“Tuesday was written off to recovery and we could only get cracking on the training field yesterday.” - The Star