It would, I’m sure, have been a pretty satisfied Sharks coaching team that climbed onto the plane at Heathrow Airport on Saturday night, notwithstanding the fact that their charges had narrowly gone down to English club side Saracens 24 hours before.
The first objective, of course, was to get back home with as many fit players as they’d left with and while there is, of course, concern over Lwazi Mvovo’s mild concussion, that mission can pretty much be marked as accomplished. For the rest, the team enjoyed a good run out and experienced something completely new, while making many new friends in the process. While there certainly wasn’t a lot to write home about after 40 minutes in which the Sharks showed clear evidence of the rustiness that we all knew would be there, the team rallied well to put in a spirited showing after the break and finish clearly the stronger of the two teams.
White’s team selection contained an interesting mix of players, some of whom had everything to prove and others virtually nothing. It was perhaps to be expected that some of the Boks, who had only joined the team in earnest a few weeks ago, would look a bit out of sorts and if the likes of Beast Mtawarira, Jannie du Plessis and Willem Alberts weren’t among the clear standouts on the day, that is unlikely to concern White overly much or change his thinking about team composition. Despite some scrummaging woes – on a new surface and for at least 10 minutes with a substantially outnumbered pack – the Sharks’ set piece worked well, with line-outs in particular looking truly superb for the first time in many a campaign.
One fancies that Mtawarira, Alberts, Pieter-Steph du Toit and the brother du Plessis would all be guaranteed starters against the Bulls on 15 Feb, regardless of Saturday’s game; the focus inevitably would have been on the others in the pack and with Jean Deysel and Tera Mtembu both advancing their own claims hugely with stand-out performances, White’s job of picking just three loose forwards to start the season with has now become just that bit harder. Deysel looks full of his old fire and finally appears injury free; White may have wondered just a little about appointing him vice captain when not guaranteed a starting spot, but Saturday’s showing will have erased those doubts, while Mtembu was pure class, despite playing out of his normal position.
Perhaps the one guy who left just a slight question mark was Etienne Oosthuizen; his discipline appeared to let him down a little and while his yellow card was harsh, it was certainly justifiable under the law, far more so than du Toit’s. White is clearly a big fan of the youngster who has followed him twice, though and I’m sure there is far more to come from the 120kg bruiser. Having Anton Bresler within a hair’s breadth of fitness, though, should ensure that there is plenty of competition for that crucial number 4 jersey.
The subs also acquitted themselves well, with Jacques Botes putting in another typical “hey, remember me?” type of performance, while Kyle Cooper and Steph Lewies putting their hands up in a big way too.
The backline, packed with youngsters as it was, was always going to come under closer scrutiny and it would be wrong not to concede that the halfback pair emerged from the game with question marks still firmly in place. You can understand why White waited so long to introduce Charl McLeod, because he presumably knew exactly what he was going to get from the veteran. If anything, what he saw from Cobus Reinach will have clarified his thinking about the Bulls game, where McLeod and Pat Lambie are virtually guaranteed a start. Tim Swiel did more right than he did wrong – in unfamiliar conditions – but it is a pity that we didn’t get the chance to see how Fred Zeilinga’s legendary composure would have stood up to a similar test.
The big news, of course, was Andre Esterhuizen. If any player really went from zero to hero in this game, it was the big lad from Klerksdorp and with Frans Steyn again battling injury, White will now feel a lot more comfortable about his depth at 12 heading into the season. Let’s not forget that Heimar Williams – another natural inside centre – has never let the Sharks down and continues to impress with every outing, also finding himself on the scoresheet (albeit as a makeshift wing) at Allianz Park. The picture at 13 is less rosy, though, as Paul Jordaan looked every bit a player who hasn’t seen a rugby field in nine months. We all know how classy he is when on form, but there must be doubts about turning what we saw in London into a Super Rugby-ready outside center in the next three weeks.
Little can really be said about the back three, since their role was mainly defensive on the day. Both Tyler Fisher and Jaco van Tonder came through well, while the Springbok wingers on display will not have played themselves out of contention, despite performances that didn’t stand out on the day.
All in all, though, the Sharks should feel very confident about what they saw in the driving London rain, even if the old concerns at 4, 9 and 13 appear to still be present.Tweet