The unwritten law of Super Rugby is that serious challengers first and foremost win all their home games, to which Sharks coach Jake White has added an addendum – win as many local derbies as you can.
It is clear the Sharks are viewing tomorrow’s visit to Ellis Park as an “extended” home game in the context that their overseas tour is fast encroaching.
A victory over the Lions, followed by wins in Durban over the next fortnight – against the Cheetahs and Highlanders – would set the tone for the tour and sustain momentum for the current leaders of both the SA Conference and the overall log.
“It is an away game but it is also a very good opportunity for us to pick up points away from home,” White said.
“A lot of our players come from up there (the Lions region) or have farms up there, and they understand the psyche of a South African derby at Ellis Park,” said White, who is a Johannesburger.
“As much as it’s an away game, we probably feel more comfortable playing them because we meet them so many times a year. We know what to expect from the Lions.”
Before the season kicked off, the Sharks broke their campaign into blocks, defined by matches between their byes, those pre their tour and the ones post their tour.
“This is now a three-match stint we have targeted before we go away,” White said.
“This game against the Lions is almost a warm-up for the tour in that we are going up a few days early. We are really looking forward to getting on tour and relaxing the workload a bit during the week.”
But before the Sharks get carried away about leaving on a jet plane, they have formidable obstacles in front of them, none more so than a Lions team hurting from their non-performance against the Crusaders last week.
At flyhalf, the Lions boast the best goal-kicker in the competition (92percent) in Marnitz Boshoff, and in the thin air of the Highveld, his kicking out of hand is lethal.
But White is typically confident about questions raised about the vulnerability of his back three combination of Lwazi Mvovo (newly retreaded from wing to fullback), Odwa Ndungane and JP Pietersen.
“He (Boshoff) needs to make sure he kicks well,” White said.
“If he kicks poorly and gives it to JP, Lwazi and Odwa, the Lions could be punished. There is more than one way of looking at it (Boshoff’s kicking ability). One, do we have the kicking game to respond? I don’t really care.
“He must just make sure he kicks accurately, and if he doesn’t, as he did against the Crusaders, then I have a back three that can carve the Lions to pieces.
“What I am saying is that I’m not worried about how we deal with his kicking.
“I’m more concerned that if he doesn’t do it properly, what can we do to them.”
White said he was looking for more from his backline as a whole, not just the counter-attacking ability of the back three.
“One area we spoke about when we came back from the bye is making sure our attack becomes more of a focus point,” the coach said. “We’re comfortable when we don’t have the ball, we’re comfortable to put opposition under pressure and strangle them at the breakdown, but from this block on, I want us to be comfortable with attacking as well.
“Without making excuses, we lost our 9 and 10 (Cobus Reinach and Patrick Lambie) after losing our 13 (Paul Jordaan),” White said.
“Just as our backline was getting settled, the dynamic changed. We’ve had a bit of a break, and we have a renewed understand about what we want to do in the backs, and hopefully this will be the next step up for us as a group.” - The Star