Weather may give Sharks added edge
Sharks coach John Plumtree started the build-up week to the Absa Currie Cup final between his team and Western Province at Mr Price Kings Park by talking about the contrasting styles of what he believes are two well matched combinations.
But while he said his team like to “use the width of the field”, he also acknowledged that they “seldom in Durban get to do that because of the rain”.
Indeed, it’s been a nightmare in that sense for the Sharks and their fans during the 2012 season, as there has hardly been a match in either of the big competitions that has not had some impact from the weather.
Admittedly much more so in the Currie Cup, particularly towards the latter stages, with this past weekend’s semifinal being played in better conditions than the league matches against Western Province and the Blue Bulls, where puddles of water formed on the field and players were aquaplaning all over the place.
Well, the bad news for Plumtree, if you want to call it that, is that the long-range forecast for Durban this week suggests his team may be in for more of the same in the final.
While a nice bright smiley sun peeps through the clouds on most forecasts for Durban on Friday and Sunday, Saturday unfortunately shows computer images of cloud and rain.
But should that really bother the Sharks? If any team is used to playing in wet conditions now it is them, and while rain is admittedly a leveler, and despite what Plumtree might say in his attempt to be polite, the Sharks are a stronger team than WP, the Sharks showed again in the semifinal destruction of the Bulls that they are very good at wet-weather rugby.
Their strength is probably their adaptability. Of all the teams in the Currie Cup, the Sharks are the ones who have the most ways of playing, and credit must go to their coaches for the way their team has been able to switch between styles when it is necessary.
For the Sharks the objective of rugby is clear – you play to and attack space, and whether you do it with ball in hand or take the aerial route depends on the conditions and the opposition defensive system.
For instance, while the Sharks were lauded at the end of the Super Rugby season for the great running rugby they played, that wasn’t actually the style they employed against the Stormers in the semifinal.
In that match, and in the Currie Cup game that followed a few weeks later, they out-kicked the Cape team, and with Patrick Lambie playing so well in the pivot position, they are well equipped to do it again.
Indeed, the quality of the Sharks’ kicking game and the possibility of wet weather does introduce a few selection posers for WP coach Allister Coetzee.
He started with Gio Aplon against the Lions, but wouldn’t Joe Pietersen be the better fullback option in a possible wet weather game and against a better kicking team like the Sharks?
Louis Schreuder, normally a scrumhalf, made a difference when he came on as a flyhalf in the last quarter of the semifinal, and Coetzee believes he has a good eye for space.
But a wet-weather final won’t call for his attributes, and a bigger responsibility may rest with Demetri Catrakilis, who will be playing his final game in the blue and white hoops before trekking up the southern Cape coast to join the Kings.
Catrakilis has occasionally been exposed for possible attacking deficiencies, similar to the ones that many people see in Morne Steyn, whereas Lambie has no such weaknesses.
What should be different in the final compared to what the Sharks have packed against Stormers/WP in recent big games though, will be the absence of the massive distances that Riaan Viljoen can attain with his field-kicking boot.
Viljoen was an unannounced inclusion in the Sharks' team for their trip to Cape Town for the Super Rugby semifinal, and he played a starring role in the Currie Cup win their two weeks later, when the Sharks turned the game on its head in the period after halftime when they found space behind the Province defensive system with well-targeted kicks.
What the Sharks will have to get right against WP, and this is something that Plumtree has already acknowledged, is the blunting of the driving maul that saw the Cape team snatch what looked like an unlikely win in the dying stages of the semifinal.
“Province put a big emphasis on their forward play and play more of an all-round game,” he said.
“They like to use their big driving lineout as a weapon, and we’ll have to take a good look at that aspect.”
The Bulls are also a strong mauling team and it was that aspect of their game that always looked most likely to hurt the Sharks in a match which the hosts otherwise dominated.
However the Sharks, who have a determination and commitment on defence that maybe they lacked in the first half of Super Rugby this year, were superb in holding them out when they did visit the red zone in the second half, and should feel confident they can do the same in the final.