Sharks’ attacking play and team culture will bring success when local competitions return
DURBAN - Next Sunday, the first round of Super Rugby Unlocked will have been completed, and the cool thing for rugby supporters is that nobody can be sure of what will have transpired, never mind be certain which team will be on top when the competition closes on November 21.
This much we know after domestic rugby sprung back into life with Superfan Saturday a week ago, with the occasion illustrating that South African rugby is not quite as rusty as we thought, and that far from being idle in lockdown, players across the board sharpened their skills and conditioning.
And if we now add the game time that will come with SR Unloaded - which kicks off on Friday night when the Sharks host the Lions in Durban - there are reassuring signs that SA rugby will emerge from the Covid-19 crisis in rude health.
The double-header at Loftus, featuring the Sharks, Bulls, Stormers and Lions, confirmed that the local landscape has changed for the better since Super Rugby ended after seven rounds, with the Highveld teams having recruited wisely to narrow the gap between themselves and the Sharks and Stormers.
It is true that we shouldn’t get too carried away by those friendlies, in which the coaches gave enlarged squads game time, but there was nevertheless sufficient evidence that the Bulls and Lions will be much improved entities.
However you look at the Bulls v Sharks game, for instance, in the first half the slick Bulls were a world away from the blundering bunch of pre-lockdown.
And that is certainly down to the coaching of Jake White, who in April replaced Pote Human. White will always have his critics but the bottom line is that he is a very astute rugby man and he is outstanding in establishing the fundamentals for a rugby team to be successful.
Whether you agree or disagree with how White’s teams play (conservative) rugby, he is reliably a man with a definite plan.
He believes that experience is non-negotiable, and that class is permanent, and he thus has thirty-somethings in pivotal positions.
Morne Steyn, at 36, is White’s flyhalf and he equally has had no hesitation in backing Gio Aplon (37) to marshal the back three.
White has often been accused of coaching teams to play winning rugby at the expense of attractive rugby, but that is arguable - Bryan Habana scored the majority of his 67 Test match tries thanks to the momentum created by massive packs of ball-carrying forwards, assembled by White.
White has unashamedly rebuilt the Bulls according to what he believes wins rugby matches - a spine of experience at 2, 8,9, 10 and 15 - and given that this ties in with the traditional DNA of the Bulls, it is potentially a marriage made in heaven.
I believe White’s return to South African rugby is a massive boost to our game, and if he stays put - for once - and doesn’t seek greener pastures any time soon, he can build a new Bulls dynasty.
Down in Durban, the Sharks are busy doing the same, with a different style of rugby, under the enlightened guidance of CEO Ed Coetzee and coach Sean Everitt.
Let us not forget that the Sharks topped the overall Super Rugby table after seven rounds thanks to an irresistible brand of (largely) counter-attacking rugby.
Yes they were outplayed by the Bulls in that Superfan game but bear in mind that the Sharks left six injured first-choice players in Durban, while Jake wanted to make a statement on his return to South African rugby when Everitt was more about testing his squad.
I feel that the Sharks were too good in February and March - including a successful tour to Australasia - for them to now have surrendered all initiative to their local rivals.
They will win both Unloaded and the Currie Cup because of the incredible team culture building under Coetzee and Everitt that underpins a dynamic, ultra-positive brand of rugby.
If they were on top of the best of New Zealand in March, they will be too good in South Africa going forward, the improvements in their rivals notwithstanding.
Who can potentially topple the Sharks?
When you look at that forward pack of the Stormers, you wonder how they can lose a rugby match, yet they don’t seem to have an overall synergy to turn them into champions; the Bulls will be powerful under White but they won’t peak just yet; the Lions are very much rebuilding and their wise recruitment suggests they will be a force in the future.
The Cheetahs? Well, here is the caveat to the whole shebang. If the Springboks go to the Rugby Championship (which is increasingly unlikely) with a squad over 40 players, then the Cheetahs would be hard to beat given they would lose only one or two players.
My top three finish for Super Rugby Unloaded.