Springboks to show their Sharks influence

2008-11-07 00:00

HE will be watching the match from the comfort of his living-room in Durban North, but Sharks coach John Plumtree could have more than just a small influence on today’s Test match between the Springboks and Wales at the Millennium Stadium.

Word from within the Springbok camp is that the players are continuing to take the leading role in determining tactics, a change that came about towards the end of the Tri-Nations season, and that the presence of John Smit as captain means the Sharks’ successful recipe will not be ignored on this tour.

The Sharks, under Plumtree, won the Currie Cup for the first time in 12 years by beating the Bulls in a tense, bruising final in Durban two weeks ago. Much of the Sharks’ success has been ascribed to changes Plumtree made to the playing style.

On the surface, the Sharks’ approach may not seem that different to the one employed under Dick Muir, currently assistant to Springboks coach Peter de Villiers. But if you look at it closely, there has been a massive change, with the Sharks being far more direct with their forwards, while greater stress is laid on field position.

No one would ever say the Sharks play unimaginative or unattractive rugby. They did run the ball, only not often off first phase, with the forwards making maximum use of the five-metre gap given to the attacking team off set-pieces through the experimental law variations.

Plumtree believes in a right time to run and a right time to kick, and much depends on game situation and field position. For instance, it was greater respect for the territorial aspect that enabled the Sharks to easily beat hoodoo team the Cheetahs in early September. Where previously the Sharks persisted with a policy of running from almost anywhere against the Cheetahs, this time it was different.

While De Villiers does persist with his talk about expansive games and new approaches, it appears that may be all it is at the moment — talk. The reality, or so it is understood, is that the entire camp has bought into the belief, driven by Smit and other senior players, that the recipe for success is percentages and structured and direct rugby.

So while the presence of such exciting runners as Ruan Pienaar means it is quite possible the Boks will score some spectacular tries today, don’t bet on it happening before a sound platform has been created. As was the case when the Boks destroyed Australia 53-8 by returning to what they know, sucking in defenders and making ground forward through the pack before swinging the ball to the wings, today that old cliché about building an innings before hitting sixes will be particularly relevant.

Don’t be surprised, either, if there are many elements of the Sharks’ approach, and that in some way the Plumtree influence will be felt.

Of course, while the captain can determine on-field tactics, it is not he who selects the team, and those question marks that do hover over Bok changes were placed there when the squad was announced in Durban after the final.

Pienaar may well be the future at flyhalf, but given that the Boks want to place such a strong emphasis on structure and field position, surely Butch James should have featured?

Bath-based James did not always excel this past season, but there may be something in the fact that every time he did do so it was in games where the Boks adopted a more controlled approach, such as the tactical kicking, forward-orientated dismantling of Wales in Bloemfontein in May and the massacre of Australia.

Having James as a starter, or even insurance on the bench, might have removed one of the big imponderables about today. Ditto for Smit’s switch to tighthead. The move has been criticised by many experts, but it was bound to be made at some stage given the enormous progress made by Bismarck du Plessis, possibly the top hooker in the world today.

But if the Boks were going to experiment, would it not have been better to do so with BJ Botha, CJ van der Linde or Jannie du Plessis somewhere in the mix providing the cover?

That said, the Boks have too much talent for Wales, and should win comfortably — provided, of course, that our information is correct and De Villiers’s loose game does not make an appearance.

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