Reds down sluggish Sharks

2009-03-15 00:00

The Sharks, thick with Springboks but sluggish and over-confident, were rudely exposed by a young, enthusiastic Reds team in their Super 14 match in Brisbane at the weekend when they allowed a perfect chance to go top of the log slip through limp fingers.

The Sharks are the bookies’ favourites to take the title, but on Saturday they were, in a word, dreadful. They played without direction, purpose and commitment, and while the well-prepared Reds were full value for their win, the Sharks looked anything but semi-final contenders.

Fortunately, the Sharks keep their third spot on the log, just a point behind the Bulls — they had a weekend bye before their overseas tour started — and the Waratahs, who also had an off-day, were beaten 21-11 by the Brumbies on Friday.

Of course, it is not all gloom for the Sharks. They have lost some ground but they already have three wins on the road and, if the lessons of Saturday are quickly absorbed, they will remain strong contenders as they complete their programme back in Durban.

While the Sharks feebly sank without trace in Brisbane, the Stormers came gloriously to life against the Lions at Newlands, turning a 12-3 deficit after 20 minutes into a rousing 56-18 win as Bok flank Schalk Burger finally found elusive form. The Stormers’ backs and forwards combined superbly to romp in eight tries in an impressive, free-flowing second half when the Lions simply rolled over.

The Sharks supporters, and their coaching staff, will be appalled at the lack of intensity and commitment shown against the Reds.

Weak tackling is usually the first sign of a team smothered by complacency and that was immediately evident in Brisbane. The lively Reds, hitting the Sharks in midfield, easily carved up the defence as first-time tackles were either missed or were too weak.

But the Reds were able to run at the Sharks because they had the forward platform. The rookie Reds forwards were expected to be bullied and pushed around by a shadow Bok pack, but it never happened. Their scrum stood strongly throughout and their commitment to the breakdown resulted in the Sharks playing on their heels with the Reds running at, and through, their defensive lines.

While the intensity and overall cohesion of the Sharks was sadly missing, so were the individual skills. Rory Kockott was distracted and untidy at scrumhalf, and the departure of Ruan Pienaar (knee ligaments) after half-an-hour did not help, and Frans Steyn had one of those days when he could do no right. And without the forward momentum, they were too often running under pressure and up blind alleys.

By the final quarter John Smit, who was switched to hooker and has been in excellent form, was even missing his lineout jumpers. It was that sort of game for the Sharks and it will now be their reaction to this defeat which holds the key to the season.

Coach John Plumtree was surprisingly subdued after the setback, dismissing talk of either a relaxed week of preparation on the Gold Coast or of underrating the Reds.

“We prepared here [Gold Coast] last year and won by 50 points. We also addressed the attitude we had to have before the game. The Reds were slightly more up for the game and it was the best a side has played against us for a good while.”

The Force will also be up for the Sharks game on Saturday in Perth after they clawed their way back from a seemingly hopeless position (6-20 down at half-time) to earn a 23-23 draw with Crusaders in Christchurch. Matt Giteau landed all five shots at goal and set up both his team’s tries, for Haig Sare and James O’Connor, to ensure the match ended all square.

Lelia Masaga’s brilliant individual try sealed a 14-10 win for the Chiefs over the Highlanders in Invercargill.

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