Scrappy 14

2009-05-08 00:00

A SUPER 14 campaign that started with sweeping and rapid advances has become bogged down in a bitter scrap for survival and the Sharks have to beat the Waratahs at King’s Park this afternoon if they are to reach the semi-finals.

The Sharks’ early-season flourish that brought a string of victories on foreign fields, earning them the tag of bookies’ favourites, is now but a distant memory and the losses to the two stragglers in the competition (the Cheetahs and the Reds) and an inability to pick up bonus points for tries, is now threatening to bury their title challenge.

The Sharks have only had two bonus point victories in 11 games this season and today they desperately need to secure a win with a bonus point against the Waratahs, the team with the best defensive record in the Super 14, with a backline that has been chopped and changed.

The Sharks’ problems are obvious. Their game plan is to create momentum and establish a bridgehead over the advantage line to allow their backs to run on to the ball and at disorganised and disrupted defences. But their ball retention skills have been found wanting as they have frequently turned over possession in the tackle, on going to ground or in forcing the pass once contact has been made.

The days of the Sharks passing, or shifting the ball quickly away from the contact before the tackle, have gone and their talented, powerful attackers, almost without exception, ignore overlaps and better-placed support runners as they take on defenders and often lose the ball.

The result has been that the hard work of the forwards has been undone by a lack of continuity once the ball has left the set piece and any advantage in possession and territory has not been translated into tries.

The Sharks will be hoping that Ruan Pienaar’s return at flyhalf will bring some rhythm to the backplay, but this is his first start in seven weeks, he is partnered by a new scrumhalf (Charl McLeod) and his centres (Brad Barritt and Adi Jacobs) have not played together this year.

Of course, and as assistant coach Grant Bashford has pointed out, fresh faces could invigorate the Sharks and certainly there is pace and potential in this backline if they can settle quickly and find some cohesion.

And they will need to score tries, both for the bonus point and because goalkicking could be a problem with the reliable Rory Kockott suspended and Pienaar obviously short of match practice.

The Waratahs, fifth on 32 points, have enjoyed a similar season to the Sharks, fourth on 35. The teams have common strengths and weaknesses and both started the season well but have faded in recent weeks.

“After all our hard work overseas, winning three out of four, we have let it slip,” Muller said. “Our loss to the Cheetahs and Crusaders were two mighty blows for us,” he added pointing out that the Waratahs had also lost two games [to the Bulls and Force] just before their bye.

The Waratahs play a structured game and have conceded fewer points this season than any other team (167), but have only scored 187. They have been labelled “boring” by their Australian critics, who want to see them exploiting the attacking talents of Lachie Turner, Timana Tahu and Lote Tuqiri rather than playing a conservative percentage game.

The Sharks have conceded 196 points and scored 244, but their lack of attacking ambition and poor finishing has also cost them.

Today’s game will be an intense forward struggle between two well-matched packs crowded with internationals. Waratahs forwards coach Michael Foley says the challenge for his players is the most daunting of the season.

“If we want to progress to the next step of the competition, then our forwards have to perform against one of the biggest packs in the competition.”

The Waratahs are also well-served in the loose with the power of Wycliff Palu balanced by the valuable Wallaby Phil Waugh at the tackle and the battle at the breakdown promises to be particularly fierce.

Still, the expectation is that the Sharks forwards will again do their job and the key is whether this time the home team can find the continuity and composure on attack, which will turn scoring opportunities into points.

The Sharks, if they can beat the Waratahs today and the Bulls next week, should still have their home semi-final. It will be another war of attrition today, but the Sharks really have to now start playing like champions if they are to reach the play-offs.

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