Adaptability the key for Sharks
It will probably rain during the Absa Currie Cup final because that is just about all it does seem to do in Durban these days, but regardless of whether it does or doesn’t, the Sharks have the players and the game-plan for the conditions.
When the Sharks won their way to the Super Rugby final, they were lauded for their running style of play, the way they used momentum to force the space that they were able to find for the likes of JP Pietersen and Lwazi Mvovo to capitalise on out wide.
While the game has changed in 40 years, it was the sort of rugby that would have had the late Izak van Heerden, the coach who gave Natal the reputation for being the running province before his death in 1973, smiling in his grave.
However the Sharks haven’t always stuck to what you might call “their usual game”. When they went to Cape Town for the Super Rugby semifinal against the Stormers in August they did it very differently.
They knew that the Stormers had a strong defensive system and also that they themselves had travelled across the world and back to get to the semifinal, and thus might not have the legs in the last quarter.
So they included Riaan Viljoen unannounced at fullback, shifting Louis Ludik to the wing, to front a carefully devised plan to employ what you could call finals rugby against the Stormers – in other words an uncompromising strong forward effort backed up by a strong kicking game and aggressive, physical defence.
It worked for them then and while they were outkicked and outplayed by the Chiefs in the final, the Sharks had the legitimate excuse of just being out on their feet after their world tour during the play-off stages of the competition.
The Chiefs, like them, were an adaptable team who could play several ways, and their success was built around the shift they have made since the days when they just ran the ball from everywhere.
With so much rain about in Durban this year, the Sharks have had to be adaptable, and coach John Plumtree’s trust in the decision-making abilities of the key players has paid off.
A lot of the late Super Rugby success was down to the generalship of French flyhalf Frederic Michalak, and he has a similar and possibly even more gifted player in Patrick Lambie running the show now.
Plumtree, judging from his post-match comments, wasn’t that happy with the decision-making in the 20-3 win over the Blue Bulls in the semifinals.
“I thought we ran the ball when we should have kicked and kicked when it was on to run. Overall I thought we could have played more rugby,” said Plumtree.
More rugby in those conditions? Surely he is joking? Yet if you look at the statistics of the Sharks’ Currie Cup season, even in the many wet-weather games that they have played, where their kicking skills have come to the fore, they have still managed to bring a surprising amount of width to their game.
Of all the coaching teams in the country, the combination of Plumtree, Grant Bashford and Hugh Reece-Edwards seem to have done the most to upskill their players, and the Sharks are the off-load and passing and handling kings of South African rugby right now.
But it’s their ability to read what is needed against different opponents and in varying conditions that gives the Sharks the edge, and it will be a key advantage for them as they build up to a final which may be played in the wet or may not be.
“We’re getting used to playing wet-weather games now. We knew there would probably be wet weather in last week’s game, and we would have to have a lot of discipline and play in the right areas of the field,” said assistant coach Bashford on the Sharks website.
“The Blue Bulls will look back on the game and the penalties they gave away and admit that their discipline probably let them down. Up until that final try we scored, the game was a real arm-wrestle, there wasn’t much in it and it probably came down to their indiscipline. I also thought our kicking game was spot on, we probably out-kicked them.
“And we put Morne Steyn and Jano Vermaak under a lot of pressure at the base and their kicking game wasn’t as accurate as it is normally.”
Bashford pointed out that while his team has played a lot of wet-weather games, and even the first-round Currie Cup game in Cape Town was played in a mud-bath, it hasn’t impacted on their attacking potential, as reflected by the number of tries they have scored.
“We’ve had a lot of wet-weather games but we’ve also scored the highest number of tries in the tournament so it hasn’t affected our try-scoring ability,” he said.
“The big plus for us is that the group shows the correct balance between attack and defence. We’ve managed to defend really well, this week we managed 93% tackle stats.”
Indeed, and that may well be one of the biggest unremarked-on factors in the Sharks’ improvement during the course of 2012.
Back in February, March and April there were many questions being asked about the Sharks’ defensive organisation, as that appeared to be the area of the game that was letting them down as they hovered just outside the play-off zone and struggled for consistency in those early months.
Defence still occasionally lets them down, with the Bulls profiting from a couple of soft tries not unlike those scored by the Hurricanes in a big Super Rugby defeat on the Easter weekend when the Sharks visited Pretoria in the first round of the Currie Cup.
But generally the Sharks’ defence has been strong, and Plumtree’s early-season contention that it is all about commitment may now be being borne out, with the Sharks putting their bodies on the line in impressive fashion when the Bulls did drive at them in the second half.
It was a feature of their game against WP last time they met in Durban too, and on the evidence of the final minutes of the semifinal at Coca-Cola Park, may need to be again if Province are able to set up attacking lineouts from which they can employ the devastating driving maul which in recent years has been a more consistent try-scoring avenue for them than Bryan Habana or Gio Aplon.