Before the Sharks’ Super Rugby opener against the Bulls, director of rugby Jake White made a very pertinent and honest admission.
“The challenge that we sit with is if we’re not good enough to win this first game at home, the chances are we will struggle against the likes of the Blues in Auckland and the Crusaders in Christchurch.”
White has undoubtedly been around long enough as a coach to know that when it comes to a competition as competitive as Super Rugby, lost opportunities when playing at home can be extremely costly.
In this regard, although the Sharks have quite understandably paid due respect to the Lions this week, when all is said and done they will know that a victory over the Joburg side tonight is simply non-negotiable in the context of their campaign.
After back-to-back wins the Sharks will return to the playing field refreshed after last weekend’s bye. They have also enjoyed the benefit of continuity in selection, with White able to name a full-strength side for the third match in succession.
And although the Lions have been the surprise packages of the season so far, the Sharks have more than enough firepower to deny them the sort of platform they would surely need to cause an upset.
“The bottom line is that you have to dominate up front, you can’t win games if you don’t have a forward pack that can at least get parity,” said White.
“What has pleased me most in the first two weeks was that we took on a Bulls side who have a certain style, and came away victorious, and then we defeated a Hurricanes team that are probably 180 degrees different in terms of the way they play.
“It’s now another challenge against a Lions team with a point to prove.”
Lions coach Johan Ackermann has opted to bring fit-again Elton Jantjies straight back into the starting line-up, while shifting the in-form Marnitz Boshoff to fullback, although it wasn’t a decision that particularly surprised White.
“With that move you have a fullback who can kick for goal and out of hand, and a quality flyhalf who wants to now cement his place,” he said.
“Boshoff is the top points scorer in the competition and he’s sensed that he can play at this level, and with that comes confidence.”
Ackermann certainly seems to know how to push the right buttons with this unheralded Lions team, and it is for this reason that White will have been impressing on his troops the importance of producing a keenly focused performance tonight.
“Johan is a fantastic guy, he’s given the Lions some structure, a plan and order. They do things well. It’s not fancy stuff but they know what they have to do on the field… I’m sure he will come here with a team that’s up for the game.
“I have no doubt that it’s another challenge, but for us it’s about little steps, one at a time, and that’s the nature of this competition, you can’t ever take a game for granted.”
In the opposite camp, Ackermann has simply been reminding his players about sticking to their structures and rising to the occasion.
“I think it’s a really important game for us in terms of being able to measure ourselves against one of the top teams in the competition, who I believe will be there in the play-offs,” he said.
“I don’t want to put too much pressure on my team, and worry too much about the result. We made a commitment to ourselves that we would follow our processes each week. So we just want to produce a good performance, and not worry too much about the log standings at this stage.”
Sharks: SP Marais; Odwa Ndungane, Paul Jordaan, Frans Steyn, Lwazi Mvovo; Patrick Lambie, Cobus Reinach; Ryan Kankowski, Willem Alberts, Marcell Coetzee; Pieter-Steph du Toit, Anton Bresler; Jannie du Plessis, Bismarck du Plessis (capt), Tendai Mtawarira. Replacements: Kyle Cooper, Dale Chadwick, Lourens Adriaanse, Stephan Lewies, Jean Deysel, Charl McLeod, Heimar Williams, S’bura Sithole.
Lions: Marnitz Boshoff; Ruan Combrink, Stefan Watermeyer, Deon van Rensburg, Chrysander Botha; Elton Jantjies, Faf de Klerk; Warren Whiteley (capt), Warwick Tecklenburg, Jaco Kriel; Franco van der Merwe, Franco Mostert; Julian Redelinghuys, Willie Wepener, Schalk van der Merwe. Replacements: Robbie Coetzee, Corné Fourie, Ruan Dreyer, MB Lusaseni, Willie Britz, Ross Cronjé, JW Jonker, Coenie van Wyk.
Hurricanes (13) 21 Brumbies (15) 29
Reds (29) 43 Cheetahs (20) 33
Crusaders v Stormers
Christchurch, 8.35am. SS1/SSHD/M-Net
Force v Rebels
Perth, 10.40am. SS1/SSHD
Bulls v Blues
Pretoria, 5.05pm. SS1/SSHD/ M-Net
Sharks v Lions
Durban, 7.10pm. SS1/SSHD/M-Net
P W D L F A B Pts
Waratahs 2 2 0 0 75 26 2 10
Sharks 2 2 0 0 58 25 1 9
Chiefs 2 2 0 0 39 29 0 8
Brumbies 3 2 0 1 73 62 1 9
Reds 3 2 0 1 75 82 1 9
Lions 3 2 0 1 72 55 0 8
Highlanders 2 1 0 1 48 42 2 6
Rebels 1 1 0 0 35 14 1 5
Blues 2 1 0 1 56 53 1 5
Bulls 3 1 0 2 50 63 1 5
Cheetahs 4 1 0 3 82 108 1 5
Stormers 2 1 0 1 29 52 0 4
Hurricanes 3 0 0 3 48 75 1 1
Crusaders 2 0 0 2 34 53 0 0
Force 2 0 0 2 35 70 0 0 - Independent on Saturday