Super Rugby

Sharks have defied 'superstar tight-five' trend

Hyron Andrews (Gallo)
Hyron Andrews (Gallo)

It’s a tried and trusted belief that the key to rugby success, a principle especially applicable in the international arena, so often begins in the front-five boiler room.

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History shows, too, that a big-name collective of ironmen in that department represent a significant attribute on the route to glory in the southern hemisphere’s franchise-level pride and joy of Super Rugby.

But while the Sharks had plenty of work to do yet in their gallant charge toward maiden title success - they were overall log-leaders very close to the midway point of ordinary season when the coronavirus cripplingly intervened - there is a good case for arguing that they’ve been bucking the trend to an intriguing degree in 2020.

Just think about it: how many of their current, first-choice tight five are either close to first-choice status at Test level for the world champion Springboks, or even deemed candidates yet, in some cases, for maiden exposure?

Of the front five who both began the campaign against the Bulls and were still coach Sean Everitt’s preferred alliance in their last game before the shutdown against the Stormers at Kings Park (Ruben van Heerden and Hyron Andrews at lock; Ox Nche, Kerron van Vuuren and Thomas du Toit in the front row), only the versatile Du Toit was among the broader squad who won the World Cup in Japan late last year.

The “Tank Engine” hadn’t been an initial pick, either: mastermind Rassie Erasmus only summoned him after Trevor Nyakane tore a calf in game one against New Zealand at Yokohama, and he wasn’t in the match-day 23 for the memorable final against England.

It is probably fair to say that Du Toit remains behind all of Frans Malherbe, Vincent Koch and Nyakane in the Bok tighthead pecking order, and that he has a better chance of higher status on the loosehead side of the scrum – where he was once a more regular feature for the Sharks – as one of the Test understudies to Steven Kitshoff.

As for Nche, he remains only a one-cap Springbok, having made his debut in the dubious, very experimental once-off clash with Wales in Washington DC right at the start of Erasmus’s tenure in mid-2018.

Hooker Van Vuuren, meanwhile, continues to make decent strides in Super Rugby but most pundits would have him behind all of Malcolm Marx, Bongi Mbonambi, Akker van der Merwe – and also Scarra Ntubeni and Joseph Dweba? - at this point.

The Sharks lock partners, too, remain in the unfortunate position of being stuck behind (as things stand, anyway) a battery of customary, high-calibre second-rowers on the Springbok scene -- whether home-based or, in most cases, abroad.

All of these observations don’t mean the Sharks’ front five should be undervalued: far from it.

Considering that the oldest among them are Du Toit and Van Vuuren, both of whom have 25th birthdays looming in May, there is plentiful time available yet for all to beef up their credentials for higher honours, and to similarly increase their menace as a group.

Yet the Sharks set-piece, whether scrum or lineout, is perhaps best described as respectable and tenacious rather than genuinely dominating, when weighed against certain rival collectives both domestically and tournament-wide.

Probably the most pleasing things about the Durban-based tight five have been their mobility, fitness, ball skills and general, enthusiastic buy-in to the Sharks’ greatest hallmark this season: an ability to spark turnovers in a flash and to strike for tries even from very deep areas on the park.

Nobody can say with any certainty that the KwaZulu-Natalians were (or are, if the competition sees further light) headed compellingly to first-time overall trophy success in 2020, as many bends in the road remained unnegotiated.

But if they were to pull it off, they’d do it with one of the less steely - by prior reputation - front fives than possessed by most others who have either landed the title or gone extremely close to doing so in recent years.

Just for illustration, the Crusaders who advanced to their 10th title last year, sported four mostly decorated All Blacks in their tight five who began the final against the Jaguares: Sam Whitelock, Joe Moody, Codie Taylor and Owen Franks.

When South Africa’s own Lions went to the first of three successive tournament showpieces in 2016, their front five had three figures who would all represent South Africa that year: Marx, Franco Mostert and Julian Redelinghuys, plus substitute hooker Van der Merwe who would be Bok-capped two years later.

The last title-winning SA side, the Bulls of 2010 (who beat the Stormers in the Orlando Stadium final), had a starting front five entirely made up of Springboks: Victor Matfield and Danie Rossouw at lock, and a front row comprising Werner Kruger (picked for the Bok end-of-year tour), Gary Botha and Gurthro Steenkamp.

So the present Sharks may well be in a process of altering some perceptions ...

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