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A lesson in the Sharks’ loss

The Bulls’ tenacious victory over the table-topping Sharks this past weekend proves that, whether in the oval game or life itself, one can never stop learning.

In terms of tactics, I believe that it’s not what a team does on the day but rather how they do it.

While the Loftus duel was dominated by the boot – both sides kicked no less than 44 times each – I believe the Bulls must be applauded for executing their tried-and-tested game plan to perfection.

Although Jake White described the Bulls as predictable pre-match, which I believe offered his opponents unnecessary motivation, an intriguing tactical subplot played out as White has ostensibly built his success – past and present – on the self-same blueprint.

White won the 2007 Rugby World Cup with the Springboks by essentially adopting Bulls-style rugby.

Meanwhile, he led the Brumbies with much success and to last seasons’ Super Rugby final having completely moved away from their traditional multi-phase, ball-in-hand approach which previously underpinned the Australian side’s play.

Like it or not, the Bulls have proved the trendsetters in South African rugby for the last couple of decades. As such, the men from Pretoria deserve an amazing amount of credit.

A host of teams including the Brumbies, the Cheetahs’ Currie Cup side under Rassie Erasmus and Saracens, during my time at the club, have adopted elements of their now-famed blueprint.

The Sharks are now the latest side to follow suit.

As outlined previously, although the Sharks possess a plethora of bruising ball carriers, which the Bulls class of 2014 lacks owing to current playing personnel, there are more similarities than differences between the Sharks and Bulls’ playing patterns - even though White may not agree,.

While the aforementioned ball-carriers usually offer the Durban-based side momentum from which to build, by and large the Sharks’ success this season, aside from the Bulls defeat, has been as a direct result of their territorially-driven style of play and subsequent supremacy in this department.

In this regard, the loss of flyhalf Patrick Lambie – for most of the Bulls match and now the remainder of the Super Rugby season – represents a hammer blow for the Sharks. While there are talented young tens in Durban capable of filling the breach, Lambie’s absence will be keenly felt.

The choice between Tim Swiel and Fred Zeilinga will be critical as the pair are essentially different kinds of flyhalves and only time will tell whether White makes the right decision between the two.

The injured Lambie, out of action for six months, is to the Sharks what Morne Steyn was to the Bulls.

Steyn, for example, had the ability to dictate and dominate play and was masterful at controlling the game with his metronomic boot.

However, the role then scrumhalf Fourie du Preez played at the time was equally critical to the cause as that 9-10 axis was effectively the tactical brains behind the Bulls’ operation.

While the injury to Cobus Reinach is most untimely, Currie Cup-winning scrumhalf Charl McLeod, who starred in the 2013 final, will add something different to the Sharks’ dynamic.

During Saturday’s derby, however, the injuries to the Sharks’ first-choice pivots clearly handed the Bulls a much-needed fillip. And with Jacques-Louis Potgieter and Francois Hougaard in fine fettle and executing effectively on the day, the territorial ascendancy and result ultimately swung in the home side’s favour.

I believe the beauty of sport, and life for that matter, is that when we are faced with hiccups, subsequently opportunities arise in order to learn, and all we need to do is be receptive.

While I’ve bumped my head many times in both the oval game and life, the question I always ask myself is: What will I do differently next time?

The above point will prove critical in determining how the Sharks bounce back from their first defeat of the season.

Were the South African conference leaders really beaten by a one-dimensional side or should the Bulls be shown more respect for their ability to execute their old blueprint under pressure?

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