Sharks return from tour of hell
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The Sharks arrive home today from a Super Rugby tour of mostly trials and tribulations, but with a slight spring in their step after having saved face by beating the Force on Friday.
And boy, did they have to dig deep to turn it around after a month in which dubious questions were asked about team solidarity.
The dogged, gutsy win over one of the better Force teams in years has revived the Sharks’ vague hopes of making the play-offs.
But for there to be any solidity to their chances, they have to go unbeaten and earn bonus points in their four remaining matches, starting with beating the Bulls at Kings Park on Saturday – a big ask for a weary team who each week have been losing key players to injury, the latest being Springbok JP Pietersen. JP will undergo surgery this week on a groin injury sustained against the Force. He will not play again in the competition.
The Sharks are in 10th place and will be coveting the sixth and final wildcard spot on the log. They snuck into sixth place (and the play-offs) last year with a late charge and then made it all the way to the final, but this season they have left it too late and it is highly doubtful that there are enough points left on offer.
They really needed to bring home more than six points from their tour, but in truth, they were always going to struggle in the unforgiving world of New Zealand and Australia with 11 first-choice players on crutches at home.
Having said that, “the one that got away” truly was the second tour game against a Highlanders team who had lost nine in a row, and even an injury-ravaged Sharks team should have put them away in Dunedin. They lost 25-22 after having camped on the home team’s tryline for the final five minutes, with only referee Steve Walsh’s blindness to the persistent infringing of the defending Highlanders preventing one log point from being four.
In the opening tour game, the Sharks had only themselves to blame when they were caught cold on defence in the opening quarter and went 25-0 down against the champions Chiefs. The consolation was that they fought back in the second-half and scored four tries before losing 37-29, and the later sceptics should have gone back to that game to answer questions about team spirit. A divided team would have crumbled and accepted 50 points after that start.
The third tour game was terribly disappointing. Again the Sharks started poorly, and there could be no excuses for individual errors that gifted the ball to a Reds team so adept at counter-attacking. There was no way back from 3-29 and although the Sharks again out-scored their opponents in the second-half to give respectability to the 32-17 score-line, this was a poor performance.
On arrival in Perth, there was a “clear the air” meeting and the Monday and Tuesday training sessions had a mean edge to them. The players had clearly had enough, and when their captain was attacked off the field by a newspaper in South Africa that claimed Keegan Daniel was anti-Afrikaans, it merely added to the resolve to beat the Force.
And it was resolve that got them over the line against the Western Australians. The performance was not pretty, and it required sheer guts and defiance to win the day.
At the beginning of the season, a buoyant John Plumtree was convinced he could take on the world because he had the best depth in his squad for many a campaign. He had two or three quality players competing for every position, but erosion of that precious depth began as early as the pre-season warm-up game against the Leopards when Daniel was lost to a knee injury for a month and Tim Whitehead broke an arm and is still to recover.
The coaching staff had been excited about the role Whitehead would play because of his silky distribution skills at centre, but there were complications with the surgery on the arm.
Also in the pre-season, Willem Alberts developed a complex shoulder problem that required surgery, and Butch James’ knee injury history caught up with him and he had to have an operation on one of his knees.
Alberts started his first game last week and James is yet to play. So is Bismarck du Plessis, a senior player whose competitiveness has been sorely missed.
The absence of James has been acutely felt because of the loss of a host of centres – first Whitehead, then Paul Jordaan, Frans Steyn, Marius Joubert (he broke his hand playing for the Sharks XV) and now Pietersen, who has been playing out of position at No13.
After Saturday’s match, the Sharks have a bye and then comes the June break for the incoming Springbok Tests.
When they resume with a home match against the Blues, the Sharks would have had a number of players back from injury, but sadly, as far as the competition goes, the game will be up. - Sunday Independent