When the Sharks succumbed to a shock opening round defeat to Griquas, and then found themselves trailing by 11 points after just 20 minutes in their next game against the Lions, the prospect of a Currie Cup home semifinal would have looked a million miles away.
Yet the Durban side found a way to battle their way back to beat the Lions, and in week three, a gutsy victory over the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein proved to be a decisive result.
It exemplified the Sharks’ fighting spirit and built belief in the new processes that had been put in place, with the team hardly looking back since.
It’s a huge credit to the new coaching staff that director of rugby Brendan Venter has put in place that the Sharks managed to overcome various challenges and changes this season to book yet another home semifinal.
The players have responded positively to the introduction of different systems and structures, most notably the rotation policy that was employed for the majority of the pool stages.
This squad system has ensured it’s been a real team effort for the Sharks to reach this point, but it’s going to require another clinical all-round performance against a dangerous Cheetahs side this evening if the Durbanites are to progress to a fourth successive final.
In some ways, the baton has now been handed over to the handful of returning Bok players, with the Sharks fielding their strongest available line-up.
This means that after a lengthy injury layoff, Frans Steyn will start his first game in nearly six months, and the 26-year-old will have a vital role to play at inside centre for the Sharks.
Other players to watch out for include: Pat Lambie, who turned just 23 this week, is back in the No10 jersey. Besides the importance of his goal-kicking, Lambie’s ability to dictate play and obtain field position will be crucial to the Sharks’s cause.
Upfront, Bismarck du Plessis will have a typically multi-faceted role to play at the set-pieces, breakdowns and in terms of helping the team across the gainline with his ball-carrying capabilities. Opposite number Adriaan Strauss is just as much of a talismanic figure for the Cheetahs, and his leadership and all-round impact makes a massive difference to the Free State side.
Cheetahs scrumhalf Sarel Pretorius has also been identified as the sort of player who offers plenty of threats with his sniping breaks around the fringes, so the Sharks will need to keep a close watch on the No 9.
The Sharks have battled all season with inconsistency at the set-pieces, and it was no different against Western Province last Saturday.
The importance of securing quality first-phase possession cannot be underestimated in a knockout game, as the Sharks found out to their detriment in last year’s Currie Cup final when their line-out malfunctioned.
The Cheetahs have ace goal-kicker Riaan Smit back, so the Sharks’ discipline will need to be spot on. If the ball is slippery, the handling of both sides will be tested.
What the Sharks will also be aware of is that the Cheetahs are coming to Durban in a dangerous frame of mind, knowing that there is no expectation or pressure on them as the underdogs.
“Our approach is that we have nothing to lose and a huge amount to gain,” Cheetahs coach Naka Drotske said this week. - Saturday Star