Down … but not out

2015-04-21 00:00

AND in the 11th week, they rested. Red cards, injuries and rest policies have made for one of the most frustrating Super Rugby seasons in memory for the Sharks and a week’s break from rugby might just be what the doctor ordered.

The Sharks have a bye this week, the last team out of the 15 sides in the competition to have a break from rugby. They’ve played 10 games, and lost six — which has just about ruled out their chances of making the playoffs.

One wouldn’t write off their season just yet, but the reality of winning all four games on tour is a tough ask even if a team had won all of their games so far. The Sharks haven’t done that, and they face four strong teams in New Zealand and Australia.

They start off their tour win a clash against the Highlanders, who have won six of their eight games this season. Next up is the form side in the competition, the Hurricanes. Then they cross the Tasman Sea for a clash with the Waratahs, before a date with the lowly Reds, who have had an even more dismal season than the Durbanites.

But before they cast their eyes to their Australasian tour, the Sharks have a week to prepare and reintegrate players who have been sitting on the sidelines.

Regular captain Bismarck du Plessis will be available to play the Highlanders after serving out his four-week ban for kicking Chiefs eighthman Michael Leitch in round six. It remains to be seen whether he will retain the captaincy, and director of rugby Gary Gold said last week that the situation was yet to be discussed.

“We’ll sit down this week and have a look at the makeup of the squad. There are a couple of guys coming back, it’s not only Bismarck. Paul Jordaan is back, Stephan Lewies is playing this weekend, Frans Steyn will be back as well so we have to look at the permutations on our hands,” Gold said last Thursday.

As it stands, Marco Wentzel has done a decent job as captain despite the results of his games in charge. Gold might just be tempted to leave the captaincy in his hands when Du Plessis makes his return, so the Springbok hooker can focus on finding his form on the field.

Gold admitted the week’s break from rugby would allow him to mull over all these problems, while making plans for their tour.

Looking back at the weekend’s 17-10 loss to the Bulls, the Sharks produced a much-improved performance. They were spirited on defence, and held out the visitors for much of the game. But a Francois Hougaard try and Handre Pollard’s boot proved to be the difference between the two sides.

But the performance of Willem Alberts provided some food for thought. The massive Springbok flank made it clear how much of a difference the Sharks’ big-name players make when they are fit and hungry to perform.

Just imagine if Alberts, Du Plessis, Jean Deysel and Frans Steyn had all been available in the last 10 rounds. Alas, their discipline (except for Alberts) let them down and Gold admitted that his naughty senior players have a lot to prove to their team-mates in the weeks to come; a shot at a redemption perhaps.

“I certainly hope that is going to be the case. The guys with the cards owe us — their words not mine — and I’m looking forward to seeing how they’re going to elevate our environment and make us get even better. Tours are funny, I’ve seen teams in far worse positions fight to get back and I’m not giving up the fight in any way, shape or form,” Gold said on Saturday night.

“There is a lot to salvage. It’s all fair and well sitting here saying I’m proud of the guys and the effort; at the end of the day results count and we need to salvage results. We need to show the amazing Sharks supporters we can stay in the fight. As bitterly disappointed as I am at the moment, the worst thing we can do is roll over. We need to go away and against the odds hopefully get a couple of victories that nobody expects we can.”

Gold also hopes to make up time he didn’t spend with the team in the preseason due to his commitments in Japan. Four weeks on tour is quite long, and Gold hopes it will give the squad a chance to gel away from the media spotlight back home.

“Because of the circumstances, there are a handful of young players who will get an opportunity to play now, young Franco Marais, Sbura Sithole, Andre Esterhuizen — I’m really excited to be working with this group that is going to go on tour.

“We haven’t decided who that’s going to be yet, we do have a week’s grace so we’ll decide next week. It’s really exciting and I’m just keen to work with these guys in adverse times … we are down but we’re not out and now is the time to stand up and fight back.

“We can salvage a lot from the season, we may or may not make a playoff spot, but if we come back fighting in the last six games, we’ll salvage a lot of respect and that’s what it’s about.”

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