Sharks face toughest tests

The Sharks will need to be physical in Canberra and mentally strong in Christchurch over the next two weeks, writes MARK KEOHANE in Business Day newspaper.

Expect an interesting rugby week in Canberra. Jake White is in town with the Sharks. This time last year he was in Durban with the Brumbies when they absolutely smashed the Sharks.

The Sharks lead the table and the Brumbies have been among the leading pack all season. White, in his two seasons at the Brumbies, left a strong structure and a healthy core of players who have featured prominently in 2014.

White, a year ago, spoke glowingly of former Wallabies flyhalf Stephen Larkham’s progress as a coach. Larkham, said White, had the X factor as a player and he felt the same would be true of Larkham in his coaching career.

The Brumbies' success in 2014 has not surprised White. Neither have the advances of Larkham, along with seasoned coaching campaigner Laurie Fisher.

White loves a challenge. He insisted that bringing the Brumbies to South Africa was always the most exciting part of the season because he knew how tough it would be to win in South Africa. And then his Brumbies won, with the most significant victory against the Bulls at Loftus in last season’s semi-final.

The Sharks' regular season won’t get tougher than in the next fortnight. First up it’s the Brumbies in Canberra and then it’s the Crusaders in Christchurch.

White told me he felt he knew the blueprint for Canberra, which would focus on physicality and ‘in your face’ approach. The Sharks would have to disrupt the fluency of the Brumbies, but he also acknowledged that the Brumbies players, when they played for him, had shown the capability to match any South African team for mongrel and physicality.

The task in Christchurch would be different because of the history of the clash. The Sharks have never won in Christchurch. In fact, no South African team has won in Christchurch since the Cats sneaked a 32-31 win 13 years ago.

This weekend in Canberra the Sharks will rely on physicality for an edge. The week after that it will be more mental than physical if they are to be another historic statistic or a history-making Super Rugby statistic.

The Sharks, with eight wins from 10 starts, are South Africa’s best option to win the tournament. To do so they will need a home semi-final and a home final.

History doesn’t favour teams who travel for finals. The Crusaders have been the exception. No other team has gone to another country and won a final.

White’s Brumbies were very close last year in doing the most spectacular double in winning a semi-final in South Africa and a week later winning the final in New Zealand.

For now, it’s about whether his Sharks can do a back-to-back double in Australia and New Zealand.

I felt Super Rugby’s 2014 season got the big entertainment injection this past weekend and many teams changed a gear. The rugby was enterprising, the skill level was inspiring and there was no compromise on defence.

The game’s veterans usually start announcing their arrival in May because it’s the month that sets up June’s Test selections.

It was no surprise to see the surge in form and intensity among New Zealand’s franchises. It was also refreshing to see the important names in South African rugby, young and old, stand tall at the weekend.

Schalk Burger was monumental for the Stormers, Jean de Villiers was influential and Duane Vermeulen was menacing. Willie le Roux hummed for the Cheetahs, Heinrich Brüssow showed his importance to any team and Victor Matfield’s experience and leadership will be invaluable to the Springboks.

Frans Steyn, for leadership and versatility, has grown in the past three months. He has revelled in playing once again under White. Steyn is very important to the Springboks.

Loose forward Willem Alberts, through injury enforced necessity, is a more rounded player for having to perform in the second row, Marcell Coetzee is understated yet effective, and Lwazi Mvovo and JP Pietersen are showing the form you want from Springboks.

Handré Pollard’s first start at flyhalf for the Bulls was a celebration and don’t be surprised if he is named in Heyneke Meyer’s Springbok squad sometime this season. Meyer identified him as a Springbok before the player’s 16th birthday.

But it’s the oldies, more than any new kids, who have been making the biggest statement, not just in Super Rugby but also in the French Top 14 and European Cup. Juan Smith, for Toulon, is playing like the warrior of 2007; as did Burger at Newlands. So too Matfield.

Springbok rugby is strong, even if Super Rugby results confirm South African rugby’s player resource is stretched.

Photo: Stefan Postles/Getty Images