Sharks still all talk

2015-04-02 00:00

THE time has come, to paraphrase the Walrus, to talk of many things: of marrying a counter-attacking game to the Sharks’ kick-and-chase approach — and of providing just snatches of entertainment.

A feature of the buildup to the season was all the positive talk that Jake White’s ­one-dimensional game plan was to be buried. Also head coach Gary Gold and technical ­director Brendan Venter would soon have the Sharks back playing expansive, ball-in-hand rugby, turning them into a more effective attacking force and encouraging the spectators to return to King’s Park.

A New Zealand specialist attack coach expert was summoned and spent time with the Sharks during pre-season training. The indications were that something good and clean and fresh was about to take place.

The enlightened Venter said the Sharks have “to dare to be different” in playing attacking rugby, adding that a return to ultra-conservative rugby would be a failure in itself.

Well, here we are almost halfway through the Super Rugby season and nothing is stirring. The Sharks are still kicking and chasing, and the spectators are fidgeting and leaving, and there is still no sign of the new tomorrow.

There are mitigating factors, of course, and circumstances have worked against ­innovation and change. The Sharks’ poor start to the season has resulted in a desperate fight for survival with victories now critical if the Sharks are to remain in touch on the log. Style and creativity have been the victims.

A home game against the struggling Force would have been an ideal opportunity to play with some width and ambition but the many disruptions of last week, and the inclusion of Frans Steyn’s big boot at flyhalf, predetermined that the Sharks’ weekend game would revolve around kicking.

But they didn’t half make a meal of it. The Sharks and Force conspired to produce an evening of dreadful rugby and no one dragged through the sterile contest would need statistical proof that what they were watching was rubbish.

Still, here is confirmation. Sharks flyhalf Frans Steyn kicked the ball more out of hand (13 times) than any other player in Round Seven of Super Rugby. And the runner-up was Sias Ebersohn, the Force flyhalf, with 12 kicks ­(including one that dramatically felled his unhappy hooker).

But what made it seem such an awful waste for the Sharks was that they had so little ball with only one third of possession on the night coming their way. And then they go and treat their meagre gains with such disrespect.

There was a spark of life that highlighted what could be achieved with some ambition and variety. Sharks fullback SP Marais, fielding yet another aimless kick, ran strongly on the counter, made one pass and Lwazi Mvovo scored. Why does this not happen more often?

It would, of course, be folly for the fullback (or wing), fielding the ball well behind the ­advantage line and home alone, to run at opponents and risk having the ball turned over. But the Sharks should surely be working on turning opponents’ speculative kicks downfield to their advantage by getting players behind the catcher, moving the ball into space and then running at fractured defences.

The Sharks have a long kicking game (thanks to Steyn, Marais and Pat Lambie) and they ­usually win the aerial battle. But they are not exploiting space and the revised off-side laws (introduced to encourage the counter-attack), which rule that players in front of the kicker are off-side and cannot advance.

Marais, briefly, showed what can be achieved just as Bulls fullback Jesse Kriel (admittedly with the help of a forward pass) did in releasing wing Francois Hougaard to score against the Sharks at Loftus.

This was precisely the point made by Ian McIntosh, the former Natal and Springbok coach and still a Springbok selector, in the March edition of the Sharks Magazine.

Mac said he was often left wondering what would happen if teams were drilled to counter-attack with wings dropping back to help the fullback and given the freedom to run.

“The best ball in the game to run is from the aimless, uncontested kicks that are so abundant in the modern game … we would see far more tries scored and exciting rugby,” he said.

Hear, hear. The coaching staff would see it as a gamble and it probably would be considering the clumsy way the Sharks are playing at present. But if Marais looked to pass instead of holding on until he was tackled, if he moved the ball away from the contact area and into space, if he had strong support from fellow-backs Mvovo, Odwa Ndungane, JP Pietersen, Pat Lambie and Cobus Reinach, if their skills matched their ambition, the Sharks could run at disorganised defences and add a whole ­dimension to their game.

It would certainly surprise the heck out of the opposition — and their King’s Park ­supporters, for that matter.

Sanzar have set an unpleasant precedent

A FINAL word on the extraordinary lengths Sanzar have taken in punishing Frans Steyn after their own judicial officer recently found him not guilty of dangerous play. Steyn made a tip tackle on Chiefs flyhalf Aaron Cruden but judicial offer Jannie Lubbe cleared him because he said Sharks scrumhalf Cobus Reinach was also involved.

Had Lubbe found Steyn guilty and suspended him for one or two weeks, as most observers believed he would, the matter would have been put to bed. But Lubbe, by clearing Steyn, brought the Sanzar heavies into play and, once they took the unusual step of contradicting their own official’s decision, they were almost duty-bound to throw the book at the player.

The spotlight is again on Sanzar’s consistency. In the same game Bismarck du Plessis kicked a player’s head and was banned for four weeks and Chiefs flank Liam Messam left Sharks flank Renaldo Bothma gasping for air after throttling him on the ground but he escaped any sanction.

Many South Africans will see this as a witch-hunt — and further confirmation that Sanzar deal in double standards. Either way, Sanzar have set a precedent.

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