Cape Town - There will be many Sharks fans who will feel that their team should be emboldened by how deep Western Province had to dig to survive their semi-final against a determined Blue Bulls team, but perhaps they should think again.
The nail-biting 35-32 win after a 100-minute marathon against a Bulls team that played out of their skins and simply refused to lose might have been just what WP needed ahead of what could be a close Newlands final against the Sharks.
Indeed, WP coach John Dobson had said before the game that his team needed a stress tester, and it was provided in volumes in their semi-final.
“I did say during the week that we wanted our stress tested, but I didn’t mean quite that,” Dobson told SuperSport.com.
“A score of 19-12 would have been more like it. That would have been a nice stress test, not extra time.”
Dobson would certainly have had his own stress levels tested to the full in a game that made up for the lack of stress that he and his team would have experienced in what had been a rollicking season up until the semi-final.
Having had to endure the frustration of seeing his WP team knocked out of the SuperSport Rugby Challenge earlier this year in the quarter-final stage after having comfortably won every game in the regular season, the tension Dobson would have felt in the half hour that spanned the last 10 minutes of the regular gamed the 20 of extra time must have been close to unbearable.
Dobson has won many knock-out games in his years of coaching, but based just on what has happened at home in playoff games this season and overall to the Stormers, that dreaded C word was hovering.
But the point is that WP did survive it, they are in the final, and Dobson afterwards was able to praise his team's leadership for the calmness and composure they showed under the most intense pressure. They now have the experience of having been pushed, of having a won a close game, that they didn’t have before in a season where the closest any team came to them was 22 points.
WP would also have learned some lessons from Newlands, plus they might have buried any hidden arrogance or complacency that might have been generated by their dominance of the league phase of the season. Dobson had vigorously refuted any suggestion that there’d be complacency against a Bulls team his team had comprehensively whipped at Loftus seven days before, but afterwards he tacitly admitted that maybe there’d been some from himself.
“Our plan was to be more direct. We tried to force it. There was a bit of pressure, which may have been my fault. We wanted to play this kind of rugby and maybe we freestyled a bit too much... in fact I know we did,” said a mightily relieved Dobson afterwards.
“We would get to the 15 and bring it back into the defence, so we did not get those situations where we have SP (Marais) and Trokkie (Juarno Augustus) getting those passes away. We did not stick to the plan, certainly in terms of the territory game we planned on executing.”
In other words, lesson learned by Province. The Sharks’ best chance might have been to take WP by surprise, expose an area of weakness they didn’t know about, but after Saturday’s epic the Cape players and management will feel they’ve been thoroughly examined and have identified all the points that need improvement.
“I think we learned a hell of a lot from today. Maybe from a couple of errors of selection, and our kicking game, which was poor,” concluded Dobson.
Having played 100 minutes at Newlands, WP won’t be spending too much time on the training field sorting out the issues this week. They are more likely to be doing that in team meetings, as this will be a recovery week. The biggest task Dobson faces will be to have his players fresh for the final.
However, the fact that WP were taken to 100 minutes might be nullified a bit by their having played only 40 minutes in the rain shortened game against the Blue Bulls in the last game of the league phase.
None of the reserves were used in that game and the first-choice players played only 40 minutes, but the reserves got an extended run in the semi-final, in many instances much longer than the starting group.
It’s going to be an interesting and testing week for Dobson when it comes to team selection and management.