Johannesburg - The elation of the Sharks players at the final whistle spoke of just how much the semi-final win over the Golden Lions and playing in another Currie Cup final means to them, but it also spoke of their relief at surviving a fightback from the visitors.
Even though the Sharks made heavy weather of putting points on the board during the opening minutes of almost complete dominance, the Lions looked out of the game heading into the last 25 minutes and the feeling on the press benches at Kings Park was that it was all a bit ho-hum and maybe too predictable, according to SuperSport.com.
The Sharks pack was expected to be too strong for the Lions and lay the platform for victory and that was exactly what was happening.
But a little birdie in the form of someone who used to be involved with the Sharks had whispered in the ear of this supersport.com correspondent before the game that the Sharks would have to be well ahead going into the final 20 minutes because, in his view, the home forwards might not be fit enough.
The case study to support that argument is most of the Currie Cup games the Sharks have played this season, and the evidence does look overwhelming - in almost every game the Sharks have looked ordinary in the last 20.
It does, or so the theory goes, depend on the weather conditions, and maybe the Sharks were helped in this most recent match by the fact that global warming appears to have decreed that Durban’s winter happens in October and November these days, and not June/July, which is a fine time for a beach holiday here in the sub-tropics for anyone who is interested.
The scenario that speculated about beforehand did materialise though. Admittedly, it was helped by a ridiculous “own goal” type give away try scored by Courtnall Skosan, who was effectively passed the ball by a Sharks player when he had no defender in front of him or anywhere near.
There’d be a counter-argument that Dan du Preez, who must have been close to the man-of-the-match for his commanding performance, did rumble over towards the end, when the Lions looked a little tired too, and that score effectively made sure of the result.
But the point is that from the vantage point of the Kings Park press box, some of the Sharks forwards did look out on their feet, and the Sharks did appear to lose their way again in the last quarter, just like they did against Griquas last week, WP before that and the Lions before that…
“We were very good in the first half, I must compliment the boys for the way they played in that period, but I agree that we let it slip a bit in the second half and we gave a good Lions side a chance,” said a relieved Sharks coach Robert du Preez afterwards.
The point though, the one that can be used by Western Province ahead of next week’s final in Cape Town, was better picked up by the visiting coach, Ivan van Rooyen.
“We were trailing by a long way halfway through the match but we always thought we still had a chance because we had noted that the Sharks are best in the period between the 20th minute and the 60th minute,” said Van Rooyen.
The inference then is that the Sharks don’t always start well, which we know, and then don’t finish well. The forwards in particular did look tired late in the second half, and there was a noticeable lift in the Lions’ energy levels, as if they sensed their opponents flagging and at the same time sensed their opportunity.
The bottom line is that, as Du Preez has consistently said throughout both the Currie Cup and Super Rugby seasons, the Sharks are struggling to put together 80 minutes. That is something they will have to do in Cape Town against a WP team that will have their own experience and evidence to conclude from if they theorise about the Sharks’ fitness levels and ability to maintain focus over a full match.
Last year in both of the key games that WP won against the Sharks, the last league game and then the final played within two weeks of each other and both at Kings Park, the Sharks built up early leads and a strong ascendancy but then were outplayed by the Cape team late in the game.
Even stronger support of what Van Rooyen has spotted came from the most recent game between the Sharks and WP, won 50-28 by Province at Newlands three weeks ago. In that game WP built up a big early lead, but then right on cue, the Sharks switched on in the second quarter and carried that momentum into the third quarter as they threatened to make a close game of it. Alas though for the mean from KZN, they fell away alarmingly again in the last quarter, and WP won with a canter that didn’t seem likely 20 minutes from the end.
WP, by contrast, have tended to be strong in the last 20 minutes of their games, and you’d have to ask what the chances would be of the Sharks surviving a 100 minute marathon game in the manner which WP had to do this past weekend.
The Sharks focus then might have to be similar this coming weekend to what we thought it would be before last year’s final - they will have to be well ahead going into the second half or they will lose. They nearly got that first part right in last year’s final, they were significantly up on the scoreboard five minutes before halftime, but then conceded points that let Province back in and gave them the gap and the momentum to completely overwhelm the Sharks in the second half.