The Sharks’ daunting five-match Super 14 tour of Australasia had been planned with military precision, says coach Dick Muir, but the emphasis has been on making it an enjoyable adventure.
John Bishop of The Witness writes that Muir said that the Sharks were traditionally good travellers and the players were excited about the challenges ahead on the most demanding of tours.
Which is just as well as they have been handed a draw from hell as they criss-cross the Tasman Sea four times.
They start against the fourth-placed Hurricanes in Wellington on Saturday, six days later they take on the Highlanders in Dunedin, then nip over to Australia to play the Brumbies and the Waratahs before ending the five-week trip against the log-leading Crusaders back in New Zealand.
Muir said the itinerary had been meticulously planned, ensuring that there was the right blend of work and play, of hard rugby and relaxation.
TURN THE TOUR INTO A POSITIVE
“The build-up to the Hurricanes will be brief and intense because it will be a short week but we then go to Queenstown (one of New Zealand’s top skiing resorts) before the game against the Highlanders,” said Muir shortly before the squad flew out of Durban.
“In Australia we will be based at a resort near Sydney for the games against the Brumbies and the Waratahs and we also have excellent accommodation in Christchurch for the last game.”
While many South African rugby players dread the overseas leg of the Super 14 season, Muir said the Sharks “turned the tour into a positive” and this had shown in their successes on past tours.
But Muir concedes that the Sharks will have to improve on their South African form if they are to enjoy a successful trip.
“What is encouraging is that we have been nowhere near our best and we are still unbeaten. The plan in the Super 14 is to be in the race for the play-offs when you get to the final few games and so far we are on track.
But if we play like we did in the first half against the Reds (on Saturday), we will be in trouble.” The Sharks have the best defensive record in the competition but what is worrying for Muir, and captain Johann Muller, is that their attacking play has been poor and they have picked up only one bonus point for scoring four tries.
Their backs, intent on running over opponents instead of creating opportunities for support players, has lacked rhythm.
“Our backs have tended to run laterally rather than straight and this had made it easy for the opposition defences.”
But the Sharks have also struggled because the forwards are not dominating at the breakdown and, without quickly recycled possession, there is little momentum.
Muir is certain to start with Frederic Michalak at flyalf against the Hurricanes with Francois Steyn probably playing at inside centre.
What must also be a concern is that second-choice scrumhalf Rory Kockott, all pace, energy and physical commitment, provides the team with more momentum than the composed Springbok Ruan Pienaar.
With Ryan Kankowski and Waylon Murray, who both limped from the field on Saturday, passed fit for the tour, Muir suddenly has a full squad of players and competition for places in the starting line-up is becoming more intense with each passing week.
Steyn and Adrian Jacobs are both challenging in midfield while Bok loosehead Deon Carstens and lock Steve Sykes are back in harness to provide options at tight forward.
Lock Albert van den Berg has more to offer than 30 minutes at the end of a game and the depth at loose forward has been further increased now that Tongan battering ram Epi Taione is on board and AJ Venter is not needed at lock.
Muir has the talent – the travelling squad contains 18 internationals – and this tour will provide the opportunity to turn a willing but patchy outfit into potential champions.
Sharks’ Super 14 tour fixtures:
April 5 (Sat) Huricanes (Wellingrton)
April 11 (Fri) Highlanders (Dunedin)
April 19 (Sat) Brumbies (Canberra)
April 26 (Sat) Waratahs (Sydney)
May 2 (Fri) Crusaders (Christchurch).