DURBAN - So far this season the Sharks’ Super Rugby challenge could be summed up as the hunt for their mysterious mojo, and their inability to hang onto the slippery customer when it seemed secured.
The Sharks were hesitant in their first month of the season and almost seemed afraid to cut loose at Kings Park. And when they went on tour, their lack of confidence in backing themselves resulted in disappointing losses to the Brumbies and especially the Rebels.
It was when they arrived in New Zealand after their humiliation in Melbourne that the Sharks pulled themselves together and resolved to attack to win, rather than defend well and leave the rest to fortune.
The Blues were dispatched with ease, the Hurricanes all but beaten on their home turf, and the Durbanites returned home in chipper mood ready to tackle two crucial home derbies before their bye next week.
Only for their will-o’-the wisp mojo to sneak off into the rain-leaden clouds over Kings Park for the Bulls game. The forwards were given a clout by their Pretoria counterparts and nothing went right for the retreating backs.
The Sharks looked like they were running on empty and by the end of the match were sitting ducks. Centre Lukhanyo Am is at a loss to explain why the Sharks went into their shells last week.
“We had a decent tour and were confident when we returned from New Zealand,” the 24-year-old said. “We believed we had turned the corner and would kick on. It did not happen, nothing went to plan and we did not adapt well to the (inclement) conditions. The Bulls did and that is one of the main reasons they came out on top.”
The Sharks have been chastised by all and sundry for losing by 30 points at home, and the players know that to lose another home derby this week against the Stormers could scupper their campaign.
As it is, the Lions are just about over the hill and far away as far as the South African conference is concerned, and probably the best the Sharks can hope for is to finish second. That is unlikely to happen if they lose a second consecutive home match against a team in their conference. The winning log points pretty much count double when you are playing rivals in your conference.
Am says the Sharks are hoping to bounce back from the Bulls defeat in the same manner as they recovered from the loss to the Rebels to thrash the Blues.
“This game against the Stormers could be our season-changer,” Am said. “We need to back ourselves to win, we need to regain our confidence for the games ahead, and we must build consistency going forward.”
Am, who made his Test debut last November in the Springboks' defeat to Wales, is no stranger to adversity. In 2016 he played Super Rugby for the Kings, on loan from the Sharks, and played 10 games for a struggling team.
“I learned a great deal at the Kings. Consistent game time against top opposition was an incredible teacher,” he says.
What has made Am such a stand-out player is that despite cutting his teeth with battling teams like Border and the Kings, he has always managed to shine, either breaking the line out wide, reading the game well to be on hand to finish off tries, turning over ball out wide like a flank or putting in strong defensive hits.
“The key to getting back to winning ways is to move on as quickly as possible because this competition does not allow you time to dwell on the negative. There is no place for self pity,” Am said.
“We don’t want to put unnecessary pressure on ourselves by studying the ladder, but we have our standards and we are hard on ourselves when we don’t play to our standards.”
The intimation is that winning will take care of the log. True, but the Sharks can’t afford to hit any more potholes.