Cape Town - Sharks coach Sean Everitt got everything he asked for from his team’s four match Super Rugby tour of Australasia and the one defeat to the Hurricanes aside, so far his plan for the season is working perfectly.
He made no bones about the fact before the team departed following a scrappy win over the Bulls in a Durban sweat bath on the last day of January that he was pleased his squad was heading away early in the competition. There were two reasons for that, one related to the weather, meaning he expected the conditions overseas to be more conducive to his attacking template, and the other related to team building.
Going on tour early in the competition takes away the necessity for team building exercises to be planned for the pre-season. Being four weeks overseas and constantly in camp does have the effect of drawing the players together. And no-one who has watched the Sharks on television in these last few weeks can deny that there does seem to be a special team spirit evolving at the Durban franchise.
We did see it occasionally on specific occasions last year. You couldn’t argue that the Sharks players weren’t playing for one another on the night they thumped the Lions in Johannesburg, a game where they pulled out all the stops to give their most experienced player Beast Mtawarira a fitting celebration of his record Super Rugby cap.
But it was sporadic. A week after the Sharks smashed the Lions at a venue where before that the Lions hadn’t lost to another South African team for a number of years, they were brought to earth with an almighty bump. They were expected to beat the Jaguares at King’s Park eight days after their win in Johannesburg (the Lions game was a Friday night match and the Jaguares visited on a Saturday) but were instead hammered 51-17.
This year the energy supply has been more consistent, the load-shedding aspect, where the power line suddenly gets cut off, has gone. And Everitt has seen his team gel into a tight knit unit, one that seemed to gain in energy just when you least expected it - in the second half of the last game of a four match tour.
“For a new group we can take a lot of confidence from the tour. It was a real opportunity for us to grow, there have been a lot of personnel changes since last year but the guys have really become tight,” said Everitt in reflecting on his team’s good win over the Reds at Suncorp Stadium.
“We found a way to win against the Reds. It was not pretty but the guys were working for each other. Two weeks in New Zealand and then going to Brisbane is very tough. You never know as a coach if the players have one foot on the plane home and one foot on the rugby field. But the fight shown was something that can make the guys very proud of themselves.
“I was really proud of how the guys came back in the second half. We spoke about it being an arm-wrestle at half-time. We gave away nine penalties in the first half and that didn’t help matters.”
It is that small fact, the nine penalties given away, among a few other things, that will prevent Everitt getting ahead of himself as he looks forward now to a sequence of three tough home matches - Jaguares this week then the Stormers and Chiefs - before the team takes its first bye. For while the Sharks were fairly comfortable winners on the scoreboard in the three tour games where they prevailed, the games were all closer than the scoreline might suggest and it was not a tour where the Sharks did not show some vulnerabilities.
For instance the last line of defence was horrible in the loss to the Hurricanes, as was the tight phase play, while two of the tries they were credited with against the Rebels in Ballarat were questionable and came at crucial stages of the game when the Rebels were giving as good as they got. And there was a significant moment against the Reds that, had it gone the other way, could have led to the Sharks being well beaten.
“We felt we were fortunate to be behind just 11-8 at half-time against the Reds, it could have been much worse than that as they were getting the better of us, but luck was on our side,” said the Sharks coach.
“Unfortunately for the Reds that try they scored just on the stroke of half-time was disallowed. I thought that was a very significant moment in the game.”
It was indeed. The Reds had been camped on the Sharks line towards the end of the half, they eschewed kickable penalties, and that decision might have paid off but for the fact that a tap on in a little switch involving James O’Connor was ruled to be marginally forward. O’Connor went through between the posts and had the try been allowed the Reds would have enjoyed a significant 10 point lead at the break.
Talking of O’Connor, he went off injured early in the second half, thus robbing the Reds of their key playmaker, and the previous week the Rebels were also without their first choice flyhalf Matt Toomua as well as another backline Wallaby in the form of Reece Hodge.
So Everitt is right to keep his charges firmly rooted to the ground, for it will demand intense and consistent focus for the Sharks to keep winning the small moments that have contributed to the healthy position they find themselves in after their tour.
One immediate priority will be for him to sort out the penalty count that could easily have cost his team on tour.
“We conceded nine penalties in the first half, that played a big role in us not being able to get going before half-time and we can’t keep doing that as it will cost us,” said Everitt.
There were also big penalty counts against the Sharks in the two games in New Zealand, but the reason why the Reds were not able to punish the Sharks when they were awarded penalties is also a reason for Everitt to be upbeat. Four of the lineouts that the Reds set up from penalties in the first half were thwarted by either excellent maul defence or lineout poaches from the Sharks. That’s significant if you consider how poor the Sharks were at both disciplines earlier in the competition.
“Our maul defence was really good. We managed to stop mauls on several occasions and that was what won us the game against the Reds. The guys showed big heart there, and credit must also go to the bench players who came on in the second half. We started to get the ascendancy in the scrums and the mauls once they came on.”
Of course, Everitt’s rotation policy when it comes to selection has also benefitted the Sharks, who return home knowing that they have alternative options at flank to the impressive starting duo of James Venter and Tyler Paul after the performances delivered by Dylan Richardson and Henco Venter against the Reds.
The tour shone a light too on the Sharks’ clever recruitment, with Sikhumbuzo Notshe, lured to Durban from Cape Town in the off-season, emerging as the team’s MVP.
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