Jake’s Super challenge

Sharks director of rugby Jake White has his eye on the big prize, writes SIMON BORCHARDT.

At the end of his first week at the Sharks, new director of rugby Jake White said he had told the players they were going to win Super Rugby. ‘If they don’t believe it, then it is not going to happen,’ he added.

The Sharks have come close to winning the southern hemisphere tournament, never more so than in 2007 when Bryan Habana scored an 82nd-minute try to snatch victory for the Bulls at Kings Park. The Sharks also contested the 1996, 2001 and 2012 finals, against the Blues, Brumbies and Chiefs respectively, and were well beaten.

The Sharks have managed to win the Currie Cup three times in the past six seasons, but haven’t yet been able to translate it into Super Rugby success. In 2009 and 2011 they finished sixth on the log, losing the qualifying play-off in the latter season. So Sharks fans still excited about their team’s 2013 Currie Cup triumph should keep that in mind when looking ahead to the 2014 Super Rugby tournament. To win the Currie Cup, a team needs only to finish in the top four (not too difficult when there are only six sides) and then, once their Boks are back, win two play-off matches. Winning Super Rugby is a hell of a lot harder.

That’s probably why White, at the end of his first week as director of rugby, was talking about the fact that the Sharks, in 2013, had finished eighth on the combined Super Rugby log and fourth in the South African conference, and not their Currie Cup win. He knows which tournament defines a team’s year these days, and it’s not the one where we play among ourselves.

The good news for Sharks fans is that White has a history of taking teams that have underperformed and turning them around. In 2004, the Boks were ranked sixth, having been knocked out of the World Cup at the quarter-final stage. Three years later, they were No 1 and World Cup winners. When White joined the Brumbies at the end of 2011, he inherited a team that had finished 13th on the Super Rugby log. The next season they came seventh (just missing out on a play-off spot) and then finished third in 2013, before going on to contest the final against the Chiefs.

There’s no doubt White has the ability to get the Sharks to the top of the Super Rugby pile, but he will also need some luck. In 2013, the Sharks had 13 players injured at some stage, which made then coach John Plumtree’s job very difficult indeed. Super Rugby is such a long and gruelling competition – with few easy games – that getting to the play-offs with all of your key players fit and raring to go is half the battle won.

If the Sharks want to lift the Super Rugby trophy, it’s also vital they win the South African conference and top the combined log. They cannot expect to finish sixth, as they did in 2012, and hope to win the final after travelling halfway around the world to get there. The Bulls came second on the log in 2007 when they won the title for the first time, but only had to travel from Pretoria to Durban for the final, and they finished No 1 when they lifted the trophy again in 2009 and 2010, which saw them play all their play-off games at home.

White will know this and will be telling his players how important it is for them to start the 2014 campaign well and then maintain that level of performance throughout the tournament. If they can do that, and not get many injuries, then they will be in with a shot of winning the title come the play-offs and finally burying the ghost of 2007.

Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images

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