Sharks brace for do-or-die derby

Gary Gold says the Sharks need to win this Saturday and deny the Vodacom Bulls a losing bonus point if they’re to keep their conference title dreams alive. JON CARDINELLI reports.

In 2014, the Sharks won five of their eight derby matches and eventually claimed the South African conference title by a convincing 12-point margin. In 2015, however, there’s been nothing convincing about the Sharks, a statement that's substantiated by their four-from-nine win record as well as their log position (ninth).

After nine rounds, the Durban-based franchise has already lost four out of six against local opposition, and sit at fourth in the South African conference. They need to get back to winning ways immediately if they’re to have any hope of retaining the South African conference title.

The winner of each conference is guaranteed a place in the play-offs, and this more than the prospect of a minor trophy is the incentive to finish at the top of the South African pile. The Sharks need to win the coming derby if they’re to close the gap on the current leaders, the Bulls.

‘If you look at where we are on the log, the next game is a massive one for us,’ Gold, the Sharks director of rugby, told ‘If we are going to stay in the hunt then a win against the Bulls and a good tour [to Australasia] is absolutely non-negotiable. We need to bounce back with a win this week, and we also need to deny the Bulls a losing bonus point.’

The Sharks have come in for some fierce criticism since their 52-10 defeat to the Crusaders in Round 8. They were more competitive in the recent match against the Lions at Ellis Park, but still went down 23-21. Defence and discipline have been a problem for the Durban side all season, and the 35 missed tackles as well as André Esterhuizen's yellow card certainly cost them in last weekend’s battle with the Lions.

And yet, Gold was encouraged by what the Sharks got right in Johannesburg, and believes they will take some momentum into the next clash against the Bulls at Kings Park.

‘Attitude-wise, it was so much better than what we saw in the game against the Crusaders. We played with some attacking intent, taking some fantastic opportunities. There were moments in the game when we defended with real courage. They had us on the ropes at one stage, but we refused to let them over the tryline. And then we hit back with a great forward drive and gave ourselves a chance to win with that last penalty kick [Fred Zeilinga missed the 57m attempt after the hooter].

‘We needed to get some confidence back after that shock result to the Crusaders. While we didn’t get the result we wanted, I was glad to see the guys staying in the fight when they were down in that second half against the Lions. That's something we can build on.

‘It’s just a matter of producing a more consistent performance,’ Gold added. ‘I thought we defended well at times, but then we did miss tackles at others. There's still a lot of work to be done.’

The Sharks side that fronted the Lions in Johannesburg was missing a host of Springboks and senior players. Bismarck du Plessis, Frans Steyn, and Jean Deysel are currently serving suspensions. Pieter-Steph du Toit and Pat Lambie are on the long-term injury list, while the likes of JP Pietersen and Ryan Kankowski missed the Ellis Park game due to minor niggles.

Gold also opted to rest veterans such as Jannie du Plessis and Beast Mtawarira last week. It's hoped the two Bok props, as well as Willem Alberts, who was excellent in the first half against the Lions, will bolster the Sharks pack this coming Saturday. Kankowski is still doubtful after missing the Lions clash with a knee injury, but Pietersen may well return to the back division.

Photo: Duif du Toit/Gallo Images

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Jon Cardinelli