“It’s not particularly well-balanced, but for the time being, it seems to be working.” That’s more-or-less how I would sum up the the Sharks loose trio at this stage of the competition. Some tricky decisons lie ahead for the coaching staff, though.
Let’s start with conventional wisdom… you’re meant to have a fetcher on the openside, a bruiser on the blindside and a link-man at the back. Ideally, a smaller, faster guy with superb ground skills wearing 6 (or 7, if you’re not South African) is paired with a big, burly, ball-carrying option on the blindside. The number 8 tends to be pretty much a blend of the two. This, according to tradition, brings balance to the loose trio, although history has shown that various other configurations can be just as effective.
The Sharks started off last year with pretty much the ideal mix – Jacques Botes and Ryan Kankowski were offset very nicely by the hulking figure of AJ Venter on the blindside. Venter, history will show, proved a disappointing loose forward option under the ELV’s as his lack of pace was badly exposed by the new high-tempo game. His designated replacement, the Tongan Travesty Epi Taione, didn’t solve any problems and while the still green Jean Deysel was forced to watch from the sidelines, the irrepressible Keegan Daniel went on do some sterling work on the blindside, particularly against the Bulls and the Blues. As the season wore on, though, whether through attrition, or better understanding of the new game, the “all-pace” loose trio that the Sharks were playing started to wane in terms of effectiveness. They started to look one-dimensional and not just a little soft and it wasn’t very long before Venter found himself back in favour on the blindside of the scrum. Daniel was back on the bench and continued to add his inimitable dynamism coming on against tired defenders.
Venter and Taione both left straight after the Super 14 and the Currie Cup presented its own challenges, not least of which was the loss of both Kankowski and Deysel for the first half of the season. An alarming problem suddenly had a spotlight cast on it: the Sharks had virtually no depth at either 7 or 8 outside of the first choice players. Keegan Daniel again took the step up, this time as a makeshift number 8 – incidentally a position which suits him far better than blindside flank does – while a number of blindside options, including Steven Sykes, Nikolai Blignaut and Nick Strauss, were tried and discarded. It was only when Deysel returned to the side of the scrum that the Sharks started to look like a proper side and the young former-Lion’s hard edge was just the tonic needed to complement Botes and Daniel’s more skill-based games. Daniel was replaced by Kankowski in due course, but the formula remained the same – pick Deysel, together with any of the other two and the trio works like a dream. Leave him out and they often fail to get going.
Fast forward to 2009 and the inevitable b*tch-slap of fate – a serious injury to Deysel in only the third match of the campaign. Casting one’s eye over the squad, a gaping hole is revealed once more, in that we have only “Pollyfilla” Daniel and Skholiwe Ndlovu available as loose forward cover, with three hard games yet to come. Neither looks anything like a traditional blindside option and as we saw against the Reds, once the tide of the forward battle turns against you, you need a brute like Deysel to get some momentum going the other way. Kankowski and Botes are both capable of getting involved in the physical stuff when required, but to do so really nullifies their real strength. You need a big unit like Deysel to get stuck in while the fancy boys show off their skills.
Now, I really don’t want to take anything away from Keegan Daniel here, because the young man performed an absolutely crucial role on tour and I feel he stood head-and-shoulders above any other Sharks forward in terms of his contributions over the duration of the tour. He truly is the ultimate utility forward and can “do a job” anywhere in the back row. My contention, though, is that playing Daniel together with Botes and Kankowski is counter-productive in that it hampers the freedom that the latter two players need in order to be at their destructive best. Simply put, JB and Kanko get sucked into the donkey work that Jean Deysel would usually do the lion’s share of.
So what do we do now? It looks like Deysel is still a few weeks away from being ready to play. Do we risk a young, untried player like Justin Downey or Mike Rhodes in the number 7 shirt? Or do we continue with Daniel until Deysel is back… in this case, who do we keep on the bench? I for one am pretty disappointed that Plumtree didn’t see fit to at least give Downey 15 minutes against the Force, because then we would have a far better idea about his aptitude for Super rugby than we do currently. As great a guy as Skollie Ndlovu is, I stand by the opinion that he is not the right guy to include in a 22 that already includes two other similar-size players in Daniel and Botes.
And what do we do with Daniel once Deysel is back? Has he done enough to warrant another start in the number 6 jersey, or must he be content to play the remainder of the season off the bench? Plenty questions to answer over the coming weeks, that’s for sure.Tweet