Johannesburg - The Sharks reckon they are on a finals footing this week, as indeed they have been since they returned from New Zealand early last month, and that being so, it shouldn’t be surprising that they are happy to embrace the underdogs tag for Saturday’s big match in Johannesburg.
According to SuperSport, it is unlikely that Sharks director of rugby Gary Gold will be giving his team a history lesson ahead of their must win match against the Emirates Lions. But he shouldn’t need to.
Ever since that famous day in 1990 when Craig Jamieson took what was then the Natal team to Loftus and beat Northern Transvaal in a Currie Cup final where no-one thought the Durbanites had a prayer, they’ve had a reputation for being better off as underdogs in a play-off game.
And if the current Sharks players do want to consult the history books, they don’t have to go back very far.
There have been two Currie Cup finals in the past five years where the Sharks have lost when they went in as favourites (2011 against Lions in Johannesburg and 2012 against Western Province in Durban) and just one that they have won – they were underdogs when they went to Cape Town in 2014.
They were also underdogs when they went to Brisbane and then Newlands in 2012 to play two respective Vodacom Super Rugby play-off games on the road. They won both against massive odds, and it was only the debilitating flying hours they clocked up that prevented them from being more competitive in the final against the Chiefs.
Springbok wing JP Pietersen was part of that, so he is talking from experience when he says that the mission the Sharks face now of winning three games on the trot in order to make the play-offs is not an impossible one.
“The Lions are the form team, plus they have a number of returning Springboks who were in excellent form against Ireland, so we are definitely the underdogs,” said Pietersen.
“But the way we see it, we have to win three games or bust. It is finals rugby. It is as simple as that. For the next three weeks we are playing finals, and beyond that if we want to win the competition. We came a poor second to the Lions when we played them at Kings Park, and it will be tough playing them in Johannesburg, but we know that if we execute our plans we will be in with a chance.”
Pietersen said that the Sharks would need to be composed at Emirates Airlines Park and stressed the need to play a good territory game in a match that is effectively a play-off for the Durban side.
“We are excited about what we can offer on attack but we must not get reckless. We need to win the territory battle first,” he said.
“You might find that both teams have a little rustiness after the break and I think the first 20 minutes will give an indication of which team has the most hunger to win this game plus have the gameplan to outwit the opposition.”
Pietersen added that it was easier for him to come from the Springboks, where there was a lot of pressure in the last month, back to the Sharks, than the other way around.