Sharks losing their grip

2012-04-28 00:00

THEIR critics, growing in number with each passing defeat, have been having a field day this Super Rugby season as the Sharks have yo-yo’d their way through another fluctuating campaign.

The Sharks have a bye this weekend and it has been a time of introspection for the coaching staff and the players.

Their patchy form has left them with just four wins in nine outings and they face an uphill battle to reach the play-offs.

It has been the most frustrating of seasons for coach John Plumtree, who is still looking for the complete performance. Early breakdown (and refereeing) problems saw them narrowly beaten in their away games to the Bulls and Stormers but more recently it has been their shoddy defensive work and then a lack of individual, finishing skills which has failed them at critical moments.

Plumtree’s squad, a healthy mix of young and old and with quality cover in every area, started the year with high hopes.

But, like the defending champion Reds and the fancied but struggling Auckland Blues, they were hit where it hurts most even before the first shot was fired. Their most physical forwards, Beast Mtawarira, Willem Alberts and Jean Deysel, were sidelined from the start and they were quickly joined by Ross Skeate and Ryan Kankowski.

The youngsters, Dale Chadwick at prop, lock Anton Bresler and flank Marcell Coetzee, have performed admirably in the most testing conditions, but it has often been a case of hanging on rather than controlling exchanges.

At times the Sharks have been without nine Springboks in their squad and it has been at lock and in the backrow that they have been hardest hit.

“Our forwards have struggled to gain real dominance in this competition,” says Plumtree and he has regularly opted for a 5-2 split, forwards to backs, on the bench to help boost the pack.

Disappointingly, Springbok second-rower Alistair Hargreaves has made no impact this season and is now on his bike and headed for London, while fellow lock Ross Skeate, a hard and productive worker, has been hit by serious injury.

This has opened the door for young Bresler, who turned 24 at the start of the season, and he has stood up bravely in the second row. The heavily involved Bresler, who should know, is convinced that with senior players sidelined the Sharks have lacked the experience to ruthlessly and clinically transform strong positions into winning ones.

“It’s true, we’ve been very inconsistent this season,” he told Michael Marnewick, editor of the Sharks website this week.

“With the side we have, we know we’re capable of doing much better than that.

“Even the games we won weren’t always pretty and we know we can play better rugby than we have been.

“It is a new team environment with many youngsters,” he says of the squad which has nine players in their first season of Super Rugby for the Sharks and a further half-dozen in their second year.

“It’s all very well saying how enthusiastic we are and that we bring a lot of energy, but we are still learning. That’s not an excuse, even though it is a different level of rugby, but it all takes time and, hopefully, will all work out well.”

Bresler says they still should have beaten the log-leading Chiefs last Saturday.

“But we made too many [errors] in the wrong areas. You don’t want to lose possession in your own 22 or in the opposition’s 22 …

“On attack we work so hard to get into those vital areas, but then we slip-up. Perhaps a bit of patience could help, a pass that should or should not have been made.

“It boils down to composure on attack. We always speak about those things, we know what to do, we practise it on the training field, but in the game situation, that’s where it all counts and perhaps we’re get overly excited.”

Bresler says this weekend’s bye has come at an opportune moment in the campaign.

“It’s come at the right time, especially after the Chiefs game which was certainly our most physical game against an overseas team.”

The Sharks have seven remaining round robin games this season, with five at home and away fixtures to the Lions and the Cheetahs.

“If we win most of our games, which we know we are capable of achieving, we can earn a spot in the play-offs,” he says.

Last year the Sharks finished sixth on the log and had to travel to New Zealand to face the Crusaders.

“That’s not ideal and it’s not what we want. If we can improve on last year’s sixth place, we’ll take it,” the DHS product says.

Plumtree says his players showed against the Chiefs that they can stay with the best in the competition.

“If we can add some accuracy to the commitment and attitude we showed against the Chiefs, we’ll be very hard to beat.”

But time is not on their side and they will be under intense pressure next Saturday when they face the Highlanders, still seeking the consistency and accuracy that have blighted their Super Rugby season.

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