Jubilant Sharks leave for Oz and NZ ahead of tough Super 14 battles

2008-03-30 00:00

The Sharks left on their gruelling Super 14 tour of the Antipodes yesterday with their heads high but their feet firmly on the ground.

The unbeaten Sharks stuttered to their sixth successive win at King’s Park on Saturday evening, relying on their bench and a strong second-half performance for their 22-10 win over the young but enthusiastic Queensland Reds.

The Sharks returned to second place on the Super 14 log, but coach Dick Muir readily conceded that they will have to improve dramatically on their form to remain contenders while on their five-match whirl of New Zealand and Australia. "If we play like we did in the first half against the Reds next Saturday [when they face the Hurricanes in Wellington], we’ll lose by 30 points."

Indeed, Muir’s post-match refrain has become an entirely familiar one — relief at the victory, but disappointment at the way it was achieved.

"I’m happy with the result because it was an awkward game and at a bad time just a day before our tour. Our replacements again made a massive difference in the second half, but we should not be relying on them so much and putting them under pressure to keep performing."

Captain Johann Muller agreed.

"We were poor in the first half. Our tactics were wrong and we played into the Reds’ hands by kicking the ball to them. It was much better in the second half, when we took the game to them and kept the ball in hand. But we are really disappointed we did not get the fourth try and the bonus point," said the Sharks lock.

It was, in keeping with the sporting cliché, a game of two halves, with the Reds in control of possession and territory in the first and the Sharks dominating those areas in the second.

The difference, as Reds coach Phil Mooney said, was that the Sharks were good enough to take their chances, while his young team failed to finish off promising moves.

Mooney said the Sharks’ first try could have been the turning point in the game, providing a 14-point turnaround. "We were hard on attack and looked like scoring, but the Sharks intercepted, [JP Pietersen] kicked downfield and [Odwa Ndungane] scored."

Mooney said his players had expected a tough physical contest.

"Many of our young guys have not been to King’s Park before and they have not played in front of such a big crowd [42 000]. We knew the Sharks would come at us and that we had to match them at forward …"

Mooney said the tactic against the Sharks had been to speed up play and attack the space out wide. "We did that successfully, but the problem was that we let a couple of scoring chances slip away in the first half and then could not win any possession in the second."

The Sharks appeared more balanced, lively and structured after Frederic Michalak came on at flyhalf for the second half with Francois Steyn shifting to centre.

But Muir defended the efforts of Steyn, who had a typically physical but untidy first half.

"I don’t think you can blame Frans. The whole team did not perform in the first half and that certainly made it difficult for him."

Muir admitted that Steyn would prefer inside centre, where he played at the World Cup, to flyhalf and said that is where he will be used against the Hurricanes. That, of course, is not good news for centre Brad Barritt, but there is little doubt that Steyn, at the moment, is not suited to a decision-making position. No one can doubt his fierce commitment and his resolute defence, but at centre, running off the creative Michalak, should bring his attacking skills into play.

The skilful Michalak again looked in excellent form, while combative scrumhalf Rory Kockott, lock Albert van den Berg and Tongan Epi Taione, provided the Sharks with momentum.

The full Sharks squad, nursing an assortment of bumps and bruises, left Durban yesterday and Muir said that he had never before been involved with a group of players who were so excited about the prospect of touring.

Still, there are hard times ahead and Muir will have to transform that enthusiasm into a couple of 80 minutes performances if the Sharks are to stay at the business end of the log.

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