Coach Dick Muir would have had lots to mull over as he joined his Sharks team in flying out to New Zealand on Sunday for a five-match tour that will make or break their challenge for a home semifinal.
The Sharks record one match short of the halfway point of their campaign reads impressively enough — six matches played, six matches won. However, Muir has been the first to admit that in most of those his team produced a less than 100% performance, and while Sharks fans console themselves with the thought that to play badly and keep winning must mean this is a highly capable team, the 22-10 win over the Reds provided many areas of concern.
Gavin Rich writes for Superrugby that while the Sharks’ defensive play cannot be faulted, they lacked the fluidity on attack that Muir would have hoped for, and once again they were denied a bonus point, something that will be crucial in the battle for home ground advantage at the end of the league stage of this competition.
You do get the impression that sooner or later the Sharks’ luck is going to run out, and Muir said before departure that the Sharks won’t get away with playing at less than top gear when they get overseas.
“Winning all your games without hitting top gear is good and well, but it won’t be good enough overseas,” said Muir.
“The crunch time is now. We will no longer have the luxury of winning while being off colour in a particular area of our game. If we want to be successful, we have to be polished in every aspect of our game, and we have all embraced that challenge.”
Ah, that word — “challenge”. Is it just possible that this is precisely what the Sharks need? It has been noticeable that while they may have struggled in many games that they should have been expected to win easier than they did, the Sharks have always managed to put it together once it really mattered.
For instance, there was the final ten minutes of the Bulls match, when they scored three tries to win a difficult match and secure their only bonus point so far, and the second half of the clash with the Stormers, where they had to recover from a 10-0 half-time deficit. And then there was the thrilling start to the Blues match.
Their response to the call for a top performance in the Blues match may well be significant in that it was the only game where the Sharks did not start as favourites. Everyone was writing up the Blues, and the Sharks started the match feeling like they had something to prove. Those first 40 minutes produced a compelling performance which all but won the match for the hosts.
The Sharks will feel they face a similar challenge in Wellington this weekend. The Hurricanes are well placed in the top four, and finished strongly against the Crusaders in their last match. You would imagine that, considering how the Sharks battled against the Reds, the Durban team will start as underdogs.
Could this be the spark for them to produce one of their best performances? It could well be, for the Sharks will know that over the next five weeks they cannot afford to be complacent, that over-confidence will be punished. They start their tour against the Hurricanes, they end it against the Crusaders, and in between that they play in Australia — as away legs go, they don’t come any tougher.
It was a good thing then that the Sharks reported a clean bill of health before their departure, with Waylon Murray and Ryan Kankowski both recovering from the injuries that bothered them against the Reds.
There is no denying that the Sharks do have the players to beat any comers, both at home and overseas. Perhaps they need to be sparked by a real challenge. That challenge, like Polly Shortts inevitably does for any ambitious Comrades Marathon hopeful and as Constantia Nek does in the Two Oceans, has now arrived…Tweet