I had a very interesting chat with fellow blogger Morné yesterday and as always, he got me thinking to the extent that I just had to write an article! We were pondering a pretty diabolical performance from a Sharks pack that, on paper at least, really should have had the match of their Province counterparts last weekend.
The consensus we reached is that the Sharks pack (and in particular the tight five) is lacking in so-called “hard men” – those “enforcer” types who actively seek out physical confrontations with the opposition and don’t take a step back, ever. Being “hard” is a state of mind. It’s something that you either have, or you don’t – it’s also not the same thing as being big. Another conclusion that we came to is that a coach can’t really coach hardness. A player is either born hard and gets harder through exposure, or is born “less hard” (soft is not an appropriate word here) and stays that way throughout their career.
Ok – so just to point out the obvious fact that I realise there are so many blatant double entendres in the above paragraph (and in fact, in this article as a whole) that some folks may need to pause at this point to compose themselves. Ok, got that out of your system? Perverts! Now let’s continue…
Now, one of the key factors in building a strong pack is that you need to have a good combination – or the right balance – between the enforcers and the other guys, the piano lifters and the piano players. There’s a vital tipping point, though and a coach need to get this just right. Too many hard guys and the pack becomes slow, overly aggressive and lacks skill. In short, you end up with a team of hot heads more interested in fighting than playing the game. Hard men feed off each other, you see – each time one makes a big hit, the others grow in confidence and get stronger. It’s for exactly this reason that you can’t pick “just one” enforcer in a pack and expect that you’re going to be ok. You need to have at least four, but more like 5 or 6 truly hard men in any pack.
Province, needless to say, have struggled in recent times, but the addition of Tiaan Liebenberg, Chris Jack and Anton van Zyl worked wonders for them on Saturday. Luke Watson himself, like it or not, is a pretty hard guy too, as is Pieter Louw. All of a sudden, their engine found its sweet spot and started to tick over.
The Sharks, in contract, have lost too many of theirs. John Smit, Beast Mtawarira, Bismarck du Plessis and Jean Deysel are the four real enforcers in the Sharks pack. Jannie du Plessis is fine when his brother is there, but not so effective on his own (a subject worthy of an entire other article!) Johann Muller and Steven Sykes are both in a pretty strange category, in that I don’t consider them all that hard themselves, but when they are surrounded by enough other “meanies”, they really come to the party. Put them together with Smittie, Beast and Bissie and you have a tight five that literally bristles with aggression and power. Add Deysel to the mix and suddenly, it doesn’t matter that you have two piano players in your back row. But not even that tight five can be effective if they’re trying to carry Jacques Botes, Keegan Daniel and Ryan Kankowski. We all saw that in the Super 14 countless times.
Deon Carstens, Craig Burden and especially Albert van den Berg are not hard men. They bring other things to the party, but physical domination of an opponent at all costs really isn’t their game. In a full-strength Sharks pack, they’re going to be the flair men, the super subs who add skill and pace once the donkey work has been done.
The bad news for the Sharks is that we now have only Steven Sykes left. We lost two of our hardest a few years ago, in BJ Botha and Johann Ackermann. One by one, the others have fallen to injury or Bok duty and the young Sykes now needs to really stand up and prove that, together with Deysel, he has what it takes to galvanise those around him. Skipper Badenhorst is another who can come to the party, while Nikolai Blignaut and Wiehahn Herbst will need to stake their claims and embrace the mantle of true “hardness”, or else forever be consigned to the ranks of the “could have beens”.
It’s a dirty game up front, that’s for sure.Tweet