Improved defence key to Sharks resurgence
The Sharks still have a mountain to climb if they want to get their hands on the Super Rugby trophy they should have claimed in 2007, but at least the team that finished sixth in the regular season still has a better chance of winning it than 12 other teams in the competition.
The Durbanites flew back from Brisbane on Sunday and while sleeping in their own beds for a few days before transferring to Cape Town will help their preparation for Saturday’s massive coastal semifinal against the Stormers, one of the big obstacles is going to be getting their body clocks right.
They only flew to Australia this time last week, so would have spent the days before the Reds game adjusting to the eight-hour time difference. Now they have to do it the other way and get back onto the South African clock.
Anyone who has done it will vouch for how difficult it is to get over jetlag after just flying in one direction, and it is often said that the second week of tour is the most difficult.
This would be the second week of tour for the Sharks, yet they are on the other side of the world again, so we will only know on Saturday how well they cope with the constant readjusting, as the Sharks in many ways are treading uncharted territory. Even in the old Tri-Nations, the Springboks were never away for just one week.
There were signs of jetlag in the second half of the 30-17 win over the Reds, and Keegan Daniel’s team could well have been in serious danger of being overhauled were it not for two incidents in the second half that swung the game their way.
The first was the Charl McLeod intercept try five minutes into the second half just when the Reds were fighting back and were trailing by just 10 points, and the other was the TMO call that went against what the Reds thought was a good try.
Tackling can take a lot out of a team and by some counts there were almost 200 tackles made by the Sharks against the Reds, so that is another factor that could be seen to count against the Durban team as they head to Newlands to face a Stormers team that has rested since the final league match against the Rebels.
IMPROVED DEFENSIVE GAME
But that tackling statistic is also one that should give the Sharks heart and that they should be proud of, for in no area have the Sharks made a bigger improvement this season than in their defensive game.
“Defence wins games and the boys put their bodies on the line,” was how Sharks captain Keegan Daniel put it after the Brisbane win.
It was not something he would have been saying though after some of the matches earlier in the season, when coach John Plumtree was rightly pulling his hair out at the defensive lapses that cost his team important points in key games.
Nowhere were they worse than when they were thrashed by the Hurricanes on the Easter weekend, when they dominated the possession statistics and yet lost by a huge margin.
Back then there were calls for the Sharks to employ a specialist defence coach, and to be frank, it was a well merited call as the Sharks’ defence looked disorganised.
But the coaches appeared to think it was more a question of commitment, with Plumtree often saying that a team’s passion is exhibited in their determination to keep a team out when they are just metres away from your own line.
Well if that is the case, then there is passion and commitment in this Sharks team in abundance, for there was a period in the second half where they spent at least 10 minutes pinned against their own tryline repelling wave after wave of Reds attacks.
The Reds camped in their territory for most of the half, and yet they conceded only one try, which was a late consolation effort by Reds No 8 Radike Samo after the game had already been won and lost.
Of course the Sharks have also benefitted from the return to fitness and form of star players such as Ryan Kankowski, while the switch of Willem Alberts to lock, one that the Sharks have been considering for a while without making the call, worked a charm.
Marcell Coetzee is the best loose-forward in Super Rugby and quite simply is the biggest threat to the Stormers’ chances on Saturday, and he is so much more lethal now that he has a fit Alberts and Kankowski joining him and skipper Daniel in destroying the opposition.
The return of the stalwarts has enabled Plumtree to switch the emphasis of the Sharks’ game, with the forwards playing a bigger role in laying the platform, and this has enabled him to return JP Pietersen to the wing, where he has excelled.
It may not be a coincidence that the most recent Pietersen appearance at centre was against the Lions in Johannesburg, where the Sharks’ defence was as poor as it had been in the early months.
But getting the defence right takes a lot of hard work, and whether it is down to reorganisation or just simply a change of attitude, the Sharks coaches deserve immense credit for that.
What is going to be interesting now is to see how the Sharks adjust their game as they come up against a team that has by far the best defensive system in the competition and prefers to play without the ball than with it.