Not pretty – but effective. That’s perhaps not the most accurate assessment of the season so far for the Sharks as they find themselves with a bye to mark the end of a crucial stage of the tournament.
But the team and coaching staff are the first to admit that while it hasn’t always been vintage running rugby, this is not the time to play an expansive style that looks good, but quite simply, is not feasible given the wet conditions the Sharks have played in.
Michael Marnewick at Sharksrugby.co.za writes that three home and two away games have all been played either in terribly humid, or in wet, rainy weather, hardly conducive to playing a running game, and the opposition have been either caught out, our out-thought by the Sharks in each of these five matches which shows that in retrospect, the Sharks have played the conditions to their advantage.
Five games, five wins, second on the log. At the start of the season any team would have taken that. The Blues certainly would have, but have found themselves knocked down a peg or two after three impressive wins and then losing two in a row.
And compared to last year, the Sharks are again on track to continue their march towards a top four finish.
With a number of factors behind the Sharks winning record, with five matches over and a bye ahead, the first phase of the season complete, now is a good time to examine the season so far:
At the end of the round stages in 2007, the Sharks had conceded 18 tries, the fewest of the top four sides and second best overall to the Brumbies who had conceded 16. In 2008, after just five matches, the total tries against is also five, an average of one per game, the best defensive record in the current edition.
Compare this to the current Currie Cup champions [the Cheetahs] who have now conceded 22 tries in their five matches, or the reigning Super 14 champs [the Bulls] who have scored just 5 tries and conceded 19.
Or the Blues who have lost two in a row, and who might have scored 22 tries so far, but have conceded 12, more than double the Sharks’ tally.
The Sharks have not quite done the damage to the scoreboard they would have liked, but as mentioned above, conditions have not helped, and they have a similar record to last season when they only started getting bonus point wins in the latter half of the season.
With eight games still to play, three of those at home, the Sharks will target every match from hereon in as a potential five-pointer, mindful of the Crusaders’ march and the need to finish on top of the log to secure home ground advantage in the semi and final – should they progress that far – and there is no reason to believe they won’t.
Players putting up hands
Every player is doing his bit for the team, and you cannot fault the likes of Brad Barritt and Jacques Botes who are consistently amongst the top tacklers in the team. Add the likes of Ryan Kankowski and Keegan Daniel who have reveled in the new environment the ELVs has created, and have both earned two Man of the Match Awards, a formidable tight five, a captain who leads from the front, outstanding players and back-up players like Ruan Pienaar and Rory Kockott, Stefan Terblanche as a calming, experienced campaigner, and everyone else who has pulled their weight.
Super-Subs are what they have proven to be, and those players who have worn jerseys 16 through 22 have contributed enormously to the Sharks’ cause. While it probably isn’t a whole lot of fun watching the action from the sidelines, these are the important players who can either swing a game, or replace like with like.
Games have been won and lost on account of a team’s bench, and the Sharks’ five match winning streak reflects enormously on the quality of the depth Dick Muir has at his disposal.
When last did a team win the Super 12/14 in March? The Crusaders have always started slowly and built up to peak at just the right time, and it’s not secret that they have the best record in the tournament.
And for the Sharks, it’s the same thing: get the wins under the belt, “keep on trucking along nicely” (as John Plumtree so succinctly puts it) and build up to a peak in May.
The Crusaders have started with a bang, which is interesting given their history, and might actually be a factor no-one has considered, but which could impact on them in the latter stages.
The All Blacks were pulled out of the first half of last year’s Super 14 tournament in a bid to peak at the Rugby World Cup. They did not, were knocked out early, and their season ended in early October.
The next competitive game the New Zealanders played was in mid February, four months later in the Super 14. You can imagine how excited and raring to go they must have been.
The South Africans by contrast played to the RWC Final, and then still embarked on an end of year tour, and many of those players are not yet at a level we all expect of them.
The point is that it is a debatable subject of who is, has and will peak at just the right time. Come Saturday 31 May, that question will be answered.Tweet