Although the Sharks have made an impressive start to the season, their true mettle will be tested over the next two extremely challenging months of action, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
In the context of last year’s disappointments, which saw the Sharks finish 11th in Super Rugby and fail to make the Currie Cup playoffs, their unbeaten start to this season has certainly been cause for encouragement.
Saturday’s gutsy win over the Stormers was the most impressive of the lot, coming on the back of successes against the Kings and Jaguares. Add the Sharks’ pre-season wins over Toulon and Toulouse into the equation, and the Durban-based side have now won five games on the trot.
And yet at the post-match press conference at Newlands, director of rugby Gary Gold was calm and composed. While Gold hailed the character displayed by the Sharks, he reiterated that there was a need for perspective.
Besides the fact the Sharks have yet to produce a completely convincing all-round performance in their first three games this season, albeit doing enough to come away with victory, they’ve been handed a nightmare schedule.
The clashes against the Jaguares and Stormers would have taken a lot out of the Sharks after they were forced to make a host of tackles. After Saturday’s gruelling clash at Newlands, Gold acknowledged that they couldn’t afford to continue defending as much, and highlighted the need to protect possession better and offer more with ball in hand going forward.
That should come with time, but what the Sharks have got right so far this season is ensuring the fundamentals of their game are in fine working order. Their defence, set pieces and discipline have been superb.
However, it’s the next few weeks that will provide a better gauge of just what this Sharks side is made of. This Friday the Sharks will head to Loftus to face the Bulls, before welcoming the Crusaders and then Lions to Kings Park.
None of those games are a 'gimme', and while the Sharks will benefit from a bye at the beginning of April, the next sequence of games are sure to be crucial in the context of their season. After playing the Lions, the Sharks will head to New Zealand to face the much-improved Blues, defending champions Highlanders and ever-dangerous Chiefs.
The Sharks will then return home to play last year’s runners-up, the Hurricanes, before travelling all the way to Argentina to face the Jaguares before heading back to Durban to play the Kings. That is some schedule between now and the end of May.
It’s the sort of draw that’s going to test the Sharks’ mental and physical resolve, as well as their squad depth.
Gold perhaps summed it up best after Saturday night’s victory: ‘What was more important for us to realise is that we have batches of five, seven and then five games. And those seven games are going to be ferocious, a lot are away from home. So we did talk in the pre-season about how important it was to get a good start because otherwise we could have had a repeat of last season. We know it’s just going to get tougher from here, it’s a new competition format and the decisions have been made to make it the way it is. We can’t afford to wallow in the good or the bad.’
It’s for good reason that the Sharks aren’t getting carried away with their early-season success. As they are most certainly aware of, Super Rugby is a marathon that is not run on equal terrain for all teams. However, they have taken the first few strides in the right direction.
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