The road ahead

2010-12-18 00:00

THEIR style and approach will be different, but the Springboks, staying with the past, and the Sharks, embracing change, hope to write their way into the record books in 2011.

The South Africans won just once in the Tri-Nations and were also beaten by Scotland on their tour of Britain and Ireland as they lost six of their 14 internationals this year. But victory in their final Test of the year, against England at Twickenham, has convinced the Springbok coach and his senior players that all is well and they are well on track to become the first nation to defend successfully their World Cup title in New Zealand next year.

South Africans suffered as the Springboks, tactically anyway, treaded water and ignored the new law interpretations, but 2010 did bring cheer to first the Bulls and then the Sharks.

The Bulls continued their recent domination of Super rugby, sweeping to their third championship win in four years. And coach John Plumtree took the Sharks to the top of the Currie Cup log for the third successive year before they picked up their second domestic title in three seasons.

The Super 14 and Currie Cup champions secured their objectives in contrasting fashion. The Bulls, with the boot of Morne Steyn and a workmanlike back line behind an abrasive pack of forwards, played their familiar brand of power rugby and were again an irresistible Super 14 force.

The Sharks, after their early Super 14 nightmares, adapted to changing times and salvaged their year with an innovative game plan. Plumtree’s versatility as a coach was remarkable as he transformed the Sharks’ forward-based style in the Super 14 into a fluid, quick, expansive approach in the Currie Cup.

It made for a spectacular campaign, one that brought tries, victories and the Currie Cup title, while entertaining the crowds and allowing individual players to parade their talents.

Pat Lambie, Lwazi Mvovo, Charl McLeod and Keegan Daniel flourished in the fast-moving game and they ended the year as Springboks. But powerful, bruising forward play laid the foundation and hard-driving flank Willem Alberts and Jannie du Plessis, who established himself as the leading tighthead in the country, were also rewarded at Test level.

The Sharks now hope to build on their Currie Cup success by playing a similar style of rugby in chasing their first Super rugby title.

“We were pretty happy with the way our game developed in the Currie Cup and we want to improve on that,” Grant Bashford, the Sharks assistant coach, told the Weekend Witness.

“There certainly won’t be wholesale change in our approach, but we also cannot sit back and think we have everything in place to win the Super 15. We will have to refine our game, tweak it here and there, and work on becoming even more dangerous.”

Bashford said the other teams would know what to expect from the Sharks: “We will have the same mindset but we have to keep evolving if we want to have an edge.”

The Sharks play their opening two Super 15 games (against the Cheetahs and Auckland Blues) in Durban in February and Bashford said the humidity would again be a factor.

“We have found that it is dangerous to play too much rugby in your own half when the humidity is high. So that will be a factor in those early rounds.”

Plumtree and his coaches are delighted with the squad they have assembled, but the challenge will be managing the players and somehow keeping them fresh for the 18 or 19 games (if the Sharks reach the play-offs) over six months.

“You cannot succeed in this extended competition with just 15 good players,” said Bashford. “There has to be depth and versatility in the squad, and the bench needs to be strong so that players can be rested, managed and freshened up during the campaign.”

He said the Sharks, in terms of personnel, look in excellent shape.

“We have options throughout the pack and more depth among the backs than in previous years. But we will have to work hard, we need to be clever strategically and our mental and physical preparation will have to be sharp.”

There were no obvious problem areas of concern at the end of the Currie Cup season, he said, and the season’s statistics supported his view.

“We scored the most tries in the competition. We were pleased with our set piece and our defence was excellent.”

Bashford said that the Sharks’ tackle count stood at 91% at the end of the Currie Cup.

“A defensive record of 85% is considered very good so our tackle accuracy was exceptional.”

The Sharks’ three new signings, centre Meyer Bosman, flyhalf Jacques-Louis Potgieter and scrumhalf Conrad Hoffman, have all fitted in well in pre-season training, he said.

Little can be taken for granted. Plumtree appeared to have all the building blocks in place at the start of this year’s Super 14, but then the sudden loss of his two flyhalves on the eve of the Super 14 left him high and tryless.

But in terms of talent, coaching and strategy, the Sharks are looking decidedly healthy.

At national level, it is a different story and the Boks do not appear to have the same cohesion, organisation and tactical foresight.

The Springboks certainly have the talent and experience to traumatise the whole of New Zealand at the World Cup. Nick Mallett, the Italian and Barbarian coach, is convinced that the South Africans are the only ones who can stop the All Blacks finally getting their hands on the Webb Ellis Trophy again.

But coach Peter de Villiers needs help, a technical adviser, someone —apart from his senior players — who has his ear.

We are not talking about a major overhaul here, rather just a tinkering with the game plan. We are talking about tapping into the law variations by keeping the ball in hand for longer periods, counter-attacking from the back and producing a slick back line capable of translating territory and opportunities into tries.

We are talking about exploiting the talent in South Africa. That’s all.

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