In the tranquil surrounds of rustic Michaelhouse yesterday, there was something brutal yet sanguine about the way the Sharks conducted their business during their annual pre-season sojourn in the Midlands.
Mike Greenaway, IOL.
They wrestled and boxed each other under the exhortations of martial arts experts until they were at a standstill. And then they fought some more, but were the best of pals afterwards.
In short, you could say the Sharks are in rude health as they build towards a sure-to-be epic showdown with the Stormers in Cape Town in the February 14 Super 14 opener.
Later, after the players had fizzed up the Mooi River during a chaotic raft-building exercise, Currie Cup captain Johann Muller was tired but excited as he discussed his team’s prospects.
“We are in a good place,” he said. “We are hungry, confident, settled, but – after years of no trophies – all too aware that nothing but the hardest of work puts them in cabinets.”
You would imagine that Muller will be appointed Super 14 captain – John Plumtree has yet to announce to the squad whether it is Muller or Springbok captain John Smit – but an educated guess is that there will be continuity from the Currie Cup.
In any case, Smit and Muller are close friends, and the two of them will pretty much lead as an alliance, and leadership does not get much better than this pair.
“There is huge excitement,” said Muller.
“There is the assurance that comes from us being a virtually unchanged squad for the past three years, but also a realisation that what was achieved in the past two years in the Super 14 was not good enough, and there is a fierce determination to kick on and do better.”
This is good news for Sharks fans. Some South African teams would be content with being fifth in 2006, finalists in 2007 and semi-finalists in 2008.
“Ask anybody in our squad, this is not good enough,” said Muller. “Not with the talent and, now, the experience in our squad. Guys like Brian van Zyl (CEO of the Sharks) have ensured we have a settled squad, and we must make the most of this. Last year we went unbeaten through eight rounds, yet felt we did not get out of third gear, and we are itching now to get into fifth.”
A significant reason for this is that the Sharks got stuck in a conservative mindset because they played the first half of the competition in the stifling conditions of late summer in Durban.
“The thing we learnt is that we should use our local conditions as a weapon rather than an excuse,” Muller said.
“The other teams hate playing in Durban in February and March, and we must exploit this, but when we play in cooler climes we must positively adjust the way we play. Bonus-point rugby (for scoring four tries or more) in Durban in February is very difficult, but it is easier elsewhere and we must therefore be more versatile.”
Muller said the Sharks could not have been given a tougher opening match than playing the Stormers at Newlands.
“They played some very good rugby last year, and they are waiting for us, big time. The pressure is on them, because it is tough to be a serious contender in this competition if you drop home games,” he said.
“But the next week we host the Lions before leaving for New Zealand the next day, so the pressure will be completely on us. That is what the Super 14 is all about – you have to deliver every single week!”Tweet