Sharks’ balance makes them contenders
There was a moment during the last Currie Cup season that went unnoticed by the media and the rugby fraternity in general but which was regarded as a source of immense pride by the Sharks coaches – they overtook the Stormers/Western Province in defence statistics.
That was a tribute to the hard work put in during a year which started with their defensive game being pilloried after a couple of matches where they looked distinctly vulnerable, most notably when they suffered a big Vodacom Super Rugby defeat to the Hurricanes in New Zealand during the Easter Weekend.
This past weekend the Sharks took another step towards polishing off an aspect of their play that they know could make them almost impossible to beat when they beat the Stormers at their own game at Kings Park. While many critics and fans lamented the lack of running rugby in a typically tight and in that sense dour local derby, it was the accuracy, organisation and commitment of the Sharks defence that, coupled with another strong scrumming effort, won the game for them against Jean de Villiers’s team.
The defence was a bit sloppy against the Cheetahs the week before but in Durban it was near perfect as the Sharks fine-tuned at the right time to score the win that confirms their right to be considered the best South African challenger for the Super Rugby title currently held by the Chiefs.
As they always do, the Sharks are taking a bit of time to get into the season in terms of gaining the sharpness and attacking potency that got them into the final last year, but with two wins in two starts, John Plumtree’s team have managed their best start in the competition since 2009.
That year they started so well that after six matches there were people saying that the Sanzar should just present them with the trophy there and then, but they fell off the rails with two consecutive defeats to Australian teams in Australia, and in the end it was their fellow South African team, the Bulls, who won it.
The Sharks management don’t believe that will happen again this year. For a start, while they’ve won the first two games, it’s not as if they’ve come out of the blocks particularly quickly, and they know there is a lot to work on. There are also top players, such as captain Keegan Daniel and big flanker Willem Alberts, who still have to come back from injury.
Most importantly, however, both the Sharks coaching staff and the core of the playing group now have plenty of experience in Super Rugby and they believe they have learned from past mistakes. There has been a tendency in the past for the players to pace themselves, particularly the Springboks in the group, but after being forced to travel around the world to compete in the playoffs in 2012, they are now determined not to do it again.
Consistency has become a buzzword with the Sharks in 2013. They don’t want to win games in spurts like they did last year and they don’t want to lose in spurts like they did in the second half of 2009. They want to consistently perform so that they are in position to win the South African conference and thus avoid spending the decisive weeks of the Super Rugby season eating airline food at 39 000 feet above sea level.
So far so good, and after perhaps being a bit underdone at the start of the season – the Sharks aren’t convinced they got a proper work-out in their first warm-up fixture against the Leopards in Maritzburg – they should be happy with where they’re at in the sense that winning ugly is perhaps the right way to do it at this time of the year.
Those words, winning ugly, appeared in one Durban newspaper headline the day after the game against the Stormers, but the point is they did win it. Last year it was the Stormers who won ugly when the two sides met in the second league game, admittedly at Newlands, and the season before that, at a slightly later stage at Kings Park the week after the Sharks had been to London to play the Crusaders, it was also the Stormers who won.
Winning conference games is crucial if you want to be the top South African team, and now that they’ve beaten the Stormers once they will be targeting the return clash at Newlands on 13 April as one where they can almost confirm their right to be conference champions this year. The Bulls will have something to say about that, but don’t bet against the Sharks this season hitting the target they’ve fallen short of in recent years.
And as Plumtree says, if you win the conference, that is the easiest way to win the competition. The Sharks are strong enough in all areas to make up for the disappointment of their narrow defeat to the Bulls in 2007 by going all the way.