Some good, some bad

2015-02-07 00:00

IT is the coaches’ mantra that winning isn’t everything, but wanting to win is, and Gary Gold and Brendan Venter will be chuffed by the intensity and ­commitment shown by the Sharks in edging 12-10 in their only Super Rugby warm-up game.

There was precious little else to take from Thursday night’s contest which was played in the rain on a yielding pitch and with a greasy ball.

Even the Sharks players, if they are honest, will admit that their win had a slightly hollow ring to it. Toulon shrugged off more than six goalable kicks and scored the only two tries of the game; the Sharks booted all four of their kicks in range and went home with the bacon, but with the boos of the home crowd ringing in their ears.

The approach of the two teams was in vivid contrast. Toulon, in the middle of their long, attritional season, were looking for some light relief and a ­festival ­outing. The Sharks were in a far more serious mood with Super Rugby ­business now just a week away and they were intent on grimly grinding out a win, any win.

Captain Bismarck du Plessis had promised as much and before the game he spoke of the honour of playing against a team who have won two ­European Cups in a row.

“It won’t be an easy game and we will take it seriously. We want to get a good result. This game is a perfect opportunity to boost our confidence.”

He had his wish but the Sharks’ ­conservative approach didn’t half ­irritate the crowd.

The Sharks have enjoyed a low-key build-up to the season, but they have spoken about adopting a bold approach and sharpening their attacking skills. There was, however, no sign of a brave new dawn in Toulon, with the wet ­conditions inhibiting the backplay of both teams. Toulon, to their credit, did show some ambition on attack but nothing, not a sausage, was seen of the Sharks outside backs with ball in hand.

The Sharks were facing a diluted ­Toulon combination but Gold and ­Venter will be encouraged at the way the Sharks pack stood up physically to the European club champions and the win is a valuable boost ahead of next ­Saturday’s Super Rugby opener against the Cheetahs in Durban.

There were positives, both individually and collectively, for the Sharks.

Springbok hooker Du Plessis, ­although he only played in the first half, was one. Du Plessis, who looks to have trimmed down during the brief, ­two-month close season, was highly ­effective in everything he did and he was particularly influential in securing ­possession or winning penalties at the tackle. He was missed in the second half and certainly the Sharks suffered in the scrum, line-out and breakdown.

Lock Pieter-Steph du Toit, who has returned to rugby after an extended ­injury break, was another to make an ­immediate impact and he and new ­signing, former England Test lock Mouritz Botha, had much the better of the Toulon line-out.

Another new face, former Pumas back-rower Renaldo Bothma, looks a useful signing and the Sharks need all the help they can get in the back row. Etienne Oosthuizen, who was a late replacement for Tera Mtembu in the back row, suffered a leg injury early in the second half and had to be helped from the field. With the timing of Willem Alberts’ return still uncertain, the Sharks loose-forward reserves are running low.

There was nothing to learn of the backplay. Pat Lambie looked organised and was typically brave on defence but players such as Waylon Murray, Lwazi Mvovo and S.P. Marais out wide were largely anonymous.

There were other injury concerns. Scrumhalf Cobus Reinach, who suffered a rib injury, was replaced by Conrad Hoffman in the first half, while Du Toit left the field after an hour for treatment. Sharks supporters will be hoping the many comings and goings were simply precautionary and rotational.

The Sharks scrum stood up reasonably well in the first half but fell away with the changes of the second half, while the line-out worked smoothly until replacement hooker Kyle Cooper missed his jumpers with a couple of throws in the second half.

What was of concern was that there was no sign of the continuity, the off-loading in the tackle, which should form the basis of the Sharks’ attacking game. Too often, and as they did last year ­under Jake White, players were bashing at the gainline and then immediately ­going to ground.

Perhaps on a dry day we will see a different approach.

The most pleasing feature of the night was the Sharks’ intensity at the breakdown, in defence and in chasing down the win.

Reinforcements are due to arrive this week but whether the five missing Springboks — Alberts, Jannie du Plessis and the returning Japanese trio of Frans Steyn, J.P. Pietersen and Ryan Kankowski — will be thrown directly into the frontline or eased back off the bench ­remains to be seen.

Recent history suggests that club rugby in Japan does little to prepare players for the rigours of Super Rugby. Certainly Pietersen, who these days blows hot and cold anyway — he only played off the bench for his club side in the Japanese Top League final — and Kankowski have taken time to find their feet again back in Durban.

Gold and company have gambled in restricting preparations to just this one testing friendly, and not with their ­full-strength Sharks team, while other Super Rugby teams have had three or four outings.

The victory over Toulon showed that the Sharks have the desire and intensity, but they were only tested in certain areas and they now go into the Cheetahs game next Saturday with critical ­questions still to be answered.

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