Johannesburg - The Sharks will go into the start of the second half of the Super Rugby season knowing that the time available to them to flick the switch and get the Durban faithful in behind them is rapidly diminishing.
Those who have attended matches at Jonnsons King’s Park over a long period of time might have noted that not only does the turn-out on match day appear to be diminishing, the atmosphere is becoming flat. Last week the doozy weather provided an excuse for the not so flush attendance for the derby against the Bulls, but after showing signs of a turn-around during their tour of New Zealand, the Sharks might have expected a more rousing welcome, according to the supersport.com website.
They didn’t help matters though with their slow start to the game and the whole experience posed an interesting question for those who were there – are the Sharks tending towards flat in some of their home games because the crowd is not in behind them with the same octane level as say the Newlands and Emirates Airlines Park supporters are behind the Stormers and Lions respectively, or is it that the tendency to start slow just isn’t getting their supporters into the game.
Certainly, it seems a long time ago now that Harry Viljoen brought a Transvaal team to Durban for a big Currie Cup game in the early 1990s and spoke to the media about how important it was for his men to get into the game quickly so they could shut out the crowd noise and silence the voluble and partisan Natal fans.
In those days King’s Park was a difficult place for opposing teams to visit but that is becoming less so with advancing time. It is a long time now since the Lions last lost a Super Rugby match in Durban, the Stormers lost here in Super Rugby last year but Western Province won twice in the Currie Cup, and the Bulls are also building up a good Super Rugby record against the Sharks.
The Sharks do sometimes look nervous at home and the question of being too fearful of the consequences of failure was apparently discussed at the end of the Australian leg of their tour. The experienced flanker Philip van der Walt spoke this week about how team meetings ahead of the New Zealand leg had brought out a strong resolve to play without fear and go for broke, an attitude that brought dividends. The Sharks hammered the Blues and outplayed the Hurricanes everywhere but on the scoreboard.
“We wanted to take that same attitude into the Bulls game but the Bulls just executed better than us in the first 20 minutes and that prevented us from getting into the game and picking up the momentum we enjoyed against the Hurricanes,” said Van der Walt.
Centre Lukhanyo Am, who says he was enjoying the impact that the better synching between backs and forwards in New Zealand had on his own game, disagrees though that the Sharks feel more pressure at home.
“I don’t think that is really the case, it is always special playing at the Tank and we enjoy the support we get in Durban,” said Am.
“Last week was just a very disappointing loss. We returned from New Zealand with our confidence high, but the game against the Bulls didn’t go to play. We just didn’t adapt to the conditions. The Bulls by contrast adapted really well to the conditions and played excellent rugby. But in Super Rugby you have to get over it quickly when you lose, and this week we have been positive as we prepare for the match against the Stormers.
“We managed to bounce back from our poor games in Australia when we played in New Zealand and we will be aiming to do the same against the Stormers. We know we have to be more consistent but this game could be a season changer for us. We will hopefully use this game to regain confidence and then build momentum. There is no easy game in the competition and we know we need to bring our A game and that a repeat of last week won’t be acceptable.”
Indeed, it won’t be if the Sharks want to bring that old King’s Park atmosphere back in their remaining home matches and challenge for a place in the play-offs. If you factor in their draw against the Waratahs it has been a poor season so far for the Sharks at home, with their only win being the 50 point romp against the Sunwolves, and at this time when home ground advantage appears to becoming all important in Super Rugby, they cannot afford to drop another game at home.
The Stormers come to Durban in a similar must-win situation but they have yet to lose at home this season and play most of their matches at Newlands after this. You could describe the Stormers as a different animal on their home field, which is not something you can say about the Sharks. At least not in a positive sense.