DURBAN - The next fortnight of Durban derbies will be nothing short of critical for the Sharks’ title aspirations, admits assistant coach Dick Muir.
The Sharks now host the Bulls (5pm on Saturday) and Stormers on consecutive weekends, and they have to capitalise on the good feeling in the camp after the Sharks smashed the Blues and should have beaten the Hurricanes.
“You have to be careful about telling the players that all our eggs are in the basket of this next fortnight when we are only approaching the halfway mark of the competition,” Muir said.
“Yes, they are critical home games against teams in our conference, and it is obviously huge to cash in on your home games, but you don’t want to be treating the games as cup finals with all the attendant pressure. We want the guys to continue playing with 110% commitment and freedom to express themselves.”
Muir said the communication to the players was that, as things stand right now, the destiny of the Sharks was in their own hands.
They can still top the SA Conference and win a free ride into the quarter-finals - the winners of each of the three conferences automatically qualify, and the five other teams would be the strongest finishers from the overall log.
“We feel that our destiny is on our own hands at this stage, and we are obviously chasing the carrot of winning our conference and going straight through to the quarters,” Muir said.
“So we don’t want to be dropping home games and later end up having to rely on other results to qualify. We want to control our fate, and we can do it if we keep playing the way we did against the Blues and Hurricanes.”
The Sharks had two forgettable weeks in Australia, losing to the Brumbies and then being routed by the Rebels, but the moment they landed in Auckland for week three of the tour, they transformed from a team playing with trepidation to a team that believed they could beat anybody.
“There were harsh words after the Rebels game. Our performance was frankly unacceptable,” Muir said. “But when the emotion subsided we got together as a squad and said ‘let’s release the shackles, let’s go out and give it a lash. Let’s enjoy ourselves and see what happens.’”
Ten tries on New Zealand soil and 100 points in total over the next two games ensued, resulting in a huge victory over the Blues and a heart-breaking loss to the Hurricanes, arguably New Zealand’s best team.
“We were shattered to lose to the Hurricanes the way we did. Things went against us in those last minutes, but we also could have found ways to close the game out, so that was very disappointing. But also encouraging is that we beat the top team in the competition in every respect but the scoreboard,” Muir added.
When the Sharks landed in Auckland, the message to the senior players was to stand up and be accountable for the team’s performance.
“Ruan Botha stepped up as captain, The Beast upped his game and led by example, and then Philip van der Walt was absolutely unbelievable when he came back from injury to start against the Blues,” Muir said.
“Philip cannot be underrated any more. He is an exceptional flank and he leads with intelligence. When he joined the tour, he made a massive impact.”
As did Jean-Luc du Preez, Lukhanyo Am and Curwin Bosch, according to Muir, but for the former Sharks coach, one player stood out just a little bit more than the others.
“Andre Esterhuizen has moved his game up to a completely new level,” Muir said of the burly centre. “He is a special player and has improved significantly in so many areas.
"His running lines have been great this season; his passing and offloading are like nothing we have seen from him before (Esterhuizen has said this is because of his experience of playing a high-pace game in Japan), and his defence is more disciplined, but no less effective.”