While it’s probably fair to say that the Sharks didn’t do much to appease their long-suffering fans this weekend, Saturday’s battling win against the Highlanders has at least bought them a little breathing space and while the side can hardly be said to have passed their latest test with flying colours, we probably do need to acknowledge the progress that has been made.
Let’s face it – the Sharks were really on a hiding to nothing this weekend. The spoils of victory don’t amount to much at all, since all they’ve managed to do is hold on to seventh spot on the log and are still a way away from the play-offs (and several miles behind the conference-leading Bulls and Stormers). With fans baying for blood, anything less than a 50-point win – against a team that had only lost twice in nine outings, it must be said – was always going to be viewed as a failure, with few prepared to give the team all that much credit for gutsing out a win against a side who have so far shown be in far better form.
Where the Sharks did make progress, in short, was in beating a side ahead of them on the log and while not quite overhauling them in the process, at least managing to keep them within touching distance. With Jamie Josephs’ side having lost three key men to campaign-ending injuries in the process, we may even yet look back to the Kings Park tussle as the week when the Highlanders’ unlikely 2012 Super Rugby challenge came to an end and with the Sharks the side best-positioned to capitalise should the Dunedin lads fall out of sixth place, the dream of a play-off place that so many have already let go of, may yet become reality.
Not that an away semi is going to be reward enough, though – a thing which coach John Plumtree himself has acknowledged. The fans watched the Sharks stutter their way to a sixth-place finish in 2011 and the result was nothing more than a week’s stay of execution as the Crusaders and Bryce Lawrence between them handed the side an embarrassing loss in Christchurch. For fans and other stakeholders desperate for progress from a team that has developed and evolved little under Plumtree, stasis is not good enough and while the coach insists that a top-of-conference finish remains the goal, exactly how he is going to get his stuttering team to beat both the Stormers and the Bulls, while remaining unbeaten in four other games too, is something that few can currently predict.
They’ll tell you that the only way to eat an elephant, though, is bite by bite and while the Sharks will know that they simply cannot afford to drop any points from here, the only thing currently in their focus should be the upcoming game against the Force. That’s probably the easiest of the challenges they’ll face over the coming weeks and will make a 4-try win a non-negotiable requirement. Scrums and lineouts were a lot better against the Highlanders and that set-piece dominance, coupled with better defence than we’ve seen of late, could form the platform on which to build such a win, provided the team can be consistent in these areas from week to week, which as been a challenge thus far in 2012. Assuming that the decision to kick everything away was a specific ploy used against the Highlanders, hopefully the Sharks will concentrate on better execution and accuracy with ball in hand this week, in the hope that the pacey and exciting backs may actually be given the opportunity to display some of their skills this weekend.
Time, in other words, to put last week’s disappointing performance behind them, bank the result – and move on to the next challengeTweet