Forget the play-offs. The Sharks will need to play out of their skins in Australasia just to restore their 2014 reputation. JON CARDINELLI reports.
The Sharks' 2015 campaign has been an absolute nightmare. Ten consecutive weeks of Vodacom Super Rugby. A series of injuries to key Springbok players. Three reds cards and three subsequent suspensions.
Then the stats that matter most: Six losses, including shock defeats to the Cheetahs and Lions. A 52-10 defeat to the Crusaders at Kings Park. Was that the nadir of the nightmare, or will the Sharks plunge to new depths on their tour to Australasia?
Director of rugby Gary Gold told SARugbymag.co.za recently that he is looking forward to the tour for the simple reason that it allows the team to get away from South Africa for four weeks. The assumption is that the media scrutiny will be less severe in New Zealand and Australia. It is hoped that things will improve now that there is an ocean between the Sharks and their chief detractors in the Republic.
But if Gold and company are expecting a relatively easy ride over the next four weeks, they’re in for further disappointment. The team's physical strength will be put to the test on a tour that includes matches against the Highlanders, Hurricanes, Waratahs and Reds. The first three teams on that list are still in the running for the play-offs.
Their mental and emotional strength will be put to the test as the opposition goads them to transgress on the field of play. If one recent article in New Zealand’s Sunday Star Times is anything to go by, the local media will also be on the attack. Senior writer Mark Reason wrote a provocative column that suggested the Sharks could be accused of match-fixing in that game against the Crusaders. Reason’s reasoning was weak, but then that column does send another message.
It confirms that there is lack of respect for the Sharks and the way they play. The match-fixing allegation is a stretch, mostly because it give the Sharks too much credit and the Crusaders not enough. Regarding the discipline, well, you can understand why media and fans around the globe would be disgusted and disappointed following the stamping incidents involving Jean Deysel and Sharks skipper Bismarck du Plessis.
The tour is an important one for the Sharks, and not just in the context of their 2015 campaign. Gold said recently that the likes of Du Plessis, Deysel, and Frans Steyn ‘owed the team’ following their transgressions and subsequent suspensions. The inference was that the trio would have a lot to prove on their return to the starting side. Du Plessis will have a chance for redemption when his sentence expires this week.
Gold will be desperate for results on this tour. The four from 10 return during the first 10 weeks of the campaign has put them in this position. They will be hard pressed to qualify for the play-offs from here, and perhaps the only realistic aim in terms of results is to end the league stage with a winning record (nine wins in 16 games).
That too is a tough ask if you consider that four of their last six games take place Down Under. They won three games on tour in 2014, including that unforgettable result and performance against the Crusaders in Christchurch. Unfortunately, their standards have dropped a great deal since then, they are low on confidence, and they are still missing a number of key players. It would take a miracle for Gold’s Sharks to win three matches on this particular tour.
And yet, there is still everything to play for. The Sharks have everything to prove.
They need to revert to what worked in 2014, and show some commitment to that game plan. The local media will be watching their discipline closely, and detractors on both sides of the Indian Ocean will be watching that suspect defence. The Sharks can’t afford to drop their physical standards, but they have to ensure they remain on the right side of the law.
Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images