Durban – The Sharks went into their second Super Rugby derby of the season in the same position as they went into the first, with Beast Mtawarira absent from the starting side, and they emerged from it with the same question marks.
To refresh memories, the Sharks started the season by visiting the Lions in Johannesburg. Mtawarira hadn’t played in the pre-season so was limited to a bench role, and the Lions ended up exposing the same Sharks vulnerabilities that Western Province had in last October’s Currie Cup final. The question that was asked then was “Where is the Sharks pack?”
It was a question that should have been asked again after the embarrassing 40-10 defeat to the Bulls at Kings Park at the weekend. Whether Mtawarira, who appeared to be an inspirational figure in the good performances the Sharks turned in on New Zealand soil, would have made a difference had he been present is questionable.
It wasn’t that the Bulls dominated the Sharks at forward. It is more to the point to suggest that for the Sharks’ game to work like it appeared to against the Blues and the Hurricanes, they need their forwards to give them momentum. And the Bulls stopped them from getting that, and they also shut down the threat posed by Andre Esterhuizen at inside centre.
The upshot was that the Sharks were made to look as lethargic as they were made to look by the Rebels before they got to New Zealand and John Mitchell’s Bulls made them look one dimensional and bereft of ideas.
Watching the Bulls control the game with their tactical kicking and suffocating defence in the second half made me think of the words of WP coach John Dobson after the domestic final: “We knew once we got ahead that the Sharks didn’t have the attacking game to hurt us so we just had to kick the ball into their territory and we knew we’d win the game.”
On the evidence of the Bulls defeat, not much has changed. The key for Province last October was the way their forwards dominated a team that had relied heavily on forward dominance to earn their top spot on the Currie Cup log.
The call for the Sharks to go for broke and lose their fear of failure at the start of the New Zealand leg of their tour has been well documented. But against a team that fronts them at forward and plays a tactical game like the Bulls did you require more than passion and abrasiveness, and that should provide much food for thought for the Sharks’ brains trust as they prepare for the visit of the Stormers.
In some ways the fact they have the Stormers next is both good and bad for the Sharks. Why it is bad is that the Stormers have been poor away from home this season but the one thing they do have is a pack that can hurt any team. They are certainly equipped to dominate the Sharks upfront and repeat the lesson they drummed out as WP a few months ago. The Sharks are going to have to effect a miraculous transformation in several areas or they could be facing the prospect of another home defeat.
Why it is good though is that playing the Stormers presents the Sharks with an opportunity to prove the naysayers wrong. The forwards will consider the Stormers their acid test in the sense that if they get it right and prevent the Stormers big men from gaining the ascendancy, that might go some way towards wiping away the hang-over that seems to still be lingering after the Currie Cup disappointment.
This is the chance for the Sharks pack to exorcise a ghost and erase a bad memory. At the same time, if the pack doesn’t get it right, it an opportunity for the Sharks team as a whole to show that they can fight their way out of a paper bag on a day that they don’t get forward dominance and the go forward ball they enjoyed in New Zealand. It is an opportunity for them to show that their coach was right when he says that the defeat to the Bulls was down to attitude and that when they have the motivation up they can beat anyone.
It’s a crucial game for them as they can’t afford another home defeat and Kings Park is starting to look much less of a fortress than any other of the other local Super Rugby teams’ home grounds. After the last few weeks, the coastal derby is also shaping up as the battle of the also-rans in the South African conference and in that sense it’s a must win for both Du Preez and for his counterpart Robbie Fleck.
The game kicks off at Kings Park at 17:15 on Saturday.
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