Sharks ‘suffocated’

2015-04-20 00:00

MANY coaches will say that solid defence is what wins you games, but perhaps the Sharks spent too much time tackling in their narrow 17-10 loss to the Bulls in Durban on Saturday night.

In previous rounds, the talk had been of a lack of urgency but in the build-up to this weekend’s game, the Sharks ­defence had been placed under the ­microscope. They had simply conceded too many soft tries through poor defence, but Saturday’s performance proved that they meant to make amends.

And so they did. In what was by far their best defensive effort this season, the Sharks held out wave after wave of Bulls’ attacks for most of the match.

The Bulls have often been a side who have tried to play rugby without the ball, but their willingness to hold possession and build pressure through phases has been a highlight this season, and they looked to wear down the Sharks on Saturday.

One only needs to look at the tackle count to understand how high the stakes were, and ultimately why the score was so low. According to the Vodacom Rugby stats app, the Sharks made 158 tackles to the Bulls’ 140. The Bulls enjoyed 57% of the possession and 58% of the territory, highlighting their dominance throughout the game.

Handré Pollard, the Bulls and Springbok flyhalf, controlled the game with his boot while marshalling his troops on attack. Young Sharks pivot Fred Zeilinga was outshone by his opposite number, proving why Pollard is rated so highly by Bok coach Heyneke Meyer.

The Bulls kicked more than the Sharks, which kept the hosts pinned in their own half and stuck on defence. But they were more than up for the task, and a number of players made sure the Bulls paid for every metre they had to make with ball in hand.

Willem Alberts put in some characteristically huge hits on defence and highlighted just how much the Sharks are missing their more experienced Springbok campaigners.

It was the Sharks’ inability to use what little possession they had to good use that cost them. They looked anxious on attack, and handling errors and turnovers at the breakdown eventually took their toll, as the Sharks couldn’t convert those attacking chances into points.

Despite a lone Marcell Coetzee try just after half time, the Sharks just couldn’t hold the ball long enough to trouble the Bulls.

Director of rugby Gary Gold took his time in getting to the post-match press conference, and apologised saying that the loss had led to some “soul-searching” in the change room.

“There is still hope but just unbelievable disappointment at the moment. It was a very sombre dressing room because there wasn’t a lack of effort, on the contrary there was massive effort. The guys realised what an unbelievable job this was going to be playing against such a physical team like the Bulls. We were in the game for so long, just very disappointed that we didn’t come out on the right side of the scoreboard,” Gold said.

“In games like this where it is so unbelievably close, if you don’t take two or three opportunities, and I literally mean the two or three we were given, then you lose the game. That’s what happened.”

Gold took solace in the fact that his charges didn’t take a step back on the gain line as the Bulls continued relentlessly on attack. “I would have preferred to not have defended as much as we did, but that’s the Bulls — they suffocate and strangle you, keep you down in your 22 and wait for the dam wall to break. But it didn’t, certainly not from that point of view and we defended very well.”

But it was his side’s inability to calm down when they had possession that cost them in the end. “When we worked so hard defensively and then turned over the ball; I think we had been starved of the ball so long we were almost a bit jittery with the ball in hand when all we needed was to be calm. We needed to know that we have an attacking shape we want to get ourselves into and I feel we should have been more composed.”

The Sharks have a bye this weekend before heading out on their four-week tour of New Zealand and Australia next week.

Scorers: Bulls 17 (8): Tries: Francois Hougaard. Penalties: Pollard (4) Sharks 10 (3) Tries: Marcell Coetzee. Conversions: Fred Zeilinga. Penalties: Fred Zeilinga (1)

Weekend results

Saturday

Cheetahs 17 - 18 Reds

Sharks 10 - 17 Bulls

Force 6 - 13 Stormers

Brumbies 8 - 13 Rebels

Highlanders 30 - 24 Blues

Hurricanes 24 - 29 Waratahs

Friday

Crusaders 9 - 26 Chiefs.

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