The Sharks had better shape up or they will be in for a surprise this weekend when they travel to Loftus.
I don’t think many Sharks supporters will disagree that they seemed a bit undercooked in their two games so far in the Super 14 where they struggled against the Force, and struggled even more against (let’s be honest) an average Stormers team where they could not cross the line once in 80 minutes.
Much has been said about the Sharks attacking potential and their ability to flourish under the new ELV’s in this year’s Super 14, and with players like Pienaar, Michelak, Steyn and Murray, those predictions might have been justified pre-season, but so far, we have seen nothing of this.
I have maintained in the pre-season build-up that the Sharks have arguably one of the best, most balanced packs in the tournament, but as the Crusaders and Blues proved, only the very best from the backs will set you apart and possibly get you to the last 4.
My prediction about the Sharks pack has been vindicated somewhat when one studies the statistics from the Stormers game – but it also shows a complete disregard or no respect for possession which will cost them dearly against tougher opposition.
Many believe that the Sharks helter-skelter type rugby and their love for giving the ball air would be the reasons they will be successful this year, but strangely enough it is actually because of this they will fail.
For any team to convert possession and territory into points, you need structure, otherwise you simply run from side to side on a rugby pitch with ball in hand not really accomplishing that much – a more logical statement might be that the Sharks seem undecided what to do with the ball once they have it – and they’d be right.
To prove this point let’s look at the game against the Stormers. The Stormers had to make 130 tackles in the match meaning there was more than enough opportunity to run at the Stormers and exploit their defense. More interesting however is that for the amount of time the ball was in play, which was 35 minutes, the Sharks had the ball for 20 minutes! The Sharks ran 513 meters with the ball compared to the Stormers’ 431 (remember my statement about running side-to-side and not really getting anywhere?).
Most concerning for the Sharks though is that they turned over their own ball 26 times to the Stormers, gifting them possession compared to the Stormers doing this only 18 times. The Stormers also made many more meters (almost 300) through kicking than the Sharks.
Many will now of course say that the Stormers deliberately slowed the ball down but do you really expect it to change or get easier against the likes of the Crusaders or Blues? Nah, it is going to get even tougher against the likes of McCaw and let’s not forget that this was against a Stormers team that played with 14 men for 20 minutes.
If I was on the Sharks coaching staff I will be less concerned about the negative play of the Stormers and look at those figures and be really concerned on how to turn that around so they can use the opportunities they have to score points – because no matter how much you bitch and moan at the end of the day, what is on the scoreboard is the only thing that counts.
So where does the problem lie for the Sharks?
Like it or not, I believe Ruan Pienaar is a weak link at 9 where no momentum is gained through phased ball. Obviously the 10 and 12 combination still need to settle but with any backline move in structured or first phase play (as the Blues have shown) this is where momentum and speed is created, and the Sharks have none which basically nullifies the strengths of Murray and the try-machine JP Pietersen.
Although an attacking fullback with flair will give extra a dimension to any team, the first priority or most important aspect for me is to get someone solid there with experience to which they have none better than Stefan Terblanche (yes I said it).
Importantly I think Muir should also look after his youngsters especially Francois Steyn of whom so much is expected this year. I would alternate and even rest Steyn for matches with the likes of an experienced Adi Jacobs and Brad Barritt at 12 (my preferred position for Steyn) knowing Steyn can also cover Terblanche or Pienaar at 15 and even Michelak at 10.
Pienaar at 15? Are you mad?
No I am not. In Rory the Sharks in my mind has one of the most exciting scrummies in South Africa – not only exciting, I think he has the full package.
There is one more change I would seriously consider and that is to play a loose-forward combination of Kankowski, Botes and Keegan Daniel. AJ provides great cover and mobility at lock and loose-forward and let’s face it, the man is getting old and the legs might not go a full 80 minutes where players are expected to run 8 km in a match now.
Let me be frank – if the Sharks go to Loftus with the same game-plan and mindset in application or execution this weekend they are in for a hiding. The Bulls are hurting and would want to prove they are not as bad as the 50-pint hammering they received against the Crusaders. The Bulls also have a much better defense than the Stormers, making this challenge away from home much tougher for the Sharks.
Will they learn from their mistakes? Only time will tell, but as things stand now the Sharks can forget of smelling a semi-final spot – and from a South African point of view this is disturbing since they are our best hope.Tweet