Sharks are already looking like a settled, confident team
DURBAN – Since Sean Everitt took over as Sharks coach for the Currie Cup last year, his mission statement has been “consistency in performances” and quite right so, given that for too many years just about the only thing you could rely on with the Sharks is that they would be unreliable.
For too long we have seen a spectacular win against a top-notch team followed up by a depressing defeat to a lesser foe. In recent Super Rugby seasons the Sharks took it a step further by being exceptional against New Zealand teams only to flounder against the weaker Australian sides.
A couple of examples spring to mind: in 2018 the Sharks copped 45 points from the Rebels in Melbourne and the following week scored 65 in routing the Blues in Auckland.
Last year, they were magnificent in beating the Lions 42-5 at Ellis Park but just a week later, at Jonsson Kings Park, they were dreadful in getting a 50-point pasting from the Jaguares.
To a large degree, this kind of thing has something to do with the natural South African psyche of “getting up” for the Kiwis, our traditional foe, and also for local derbies where so much pride is at stake, but I venture that the rank inconsistency at the Sharks over the past three or four years was an identity crisis in terms of how to play.
I feel that the Sharks under Robert du Preez were betwixt and between as to how they should play, and that explains why they were so inconsistent. They didn’t seem to know whether they should play to the strengths of their physical pack, backed up by a kicking game, or to exploit their dangerous backs, most of whom are now under Everitt and are flourishing.
At one stage under Du Preez, the Sharks offloaded more than any other Super Rugby team but there was also a point where they kicked more than others. What is pleasing in 2020 is that we are seeing a Sharks team that have a definitive game plan that suits the players they have at their disposal and has their buy-in. It is still early days, to be fair, but the Sharks are already looking like a settled, confident team that is only going to get stronger.
I say this because the emphatic win over the Highlanders last Saturday was the materialisation of everything the Sharks have been planning in a marathon off-season that began as long ago as October last year. What was said by the coach and chief exetutive Eduard Coetzee during pre-season about how the Sharks will play is being seen on the field of play.
The way Everitt sees it, most tries in the modern game come from turnover ball because defences are unstructured against a sudden counter-attack. In phase play, and obviously from set pieces, defences have time to reset.
But turnover ball is the priceless commodity it is because you have to go out and win it. It doesn’t come easy and you need the right type of players with the right attitude to attack the breakdown. It is why the Sharks bought out-and-out opensiders in the two Venters, James (from the Lions) and Henco (Cheetahs).
The Sharks haven’t played with a genuine fetcher just about since Wayne Fyvie! Not quite but close, and now that they have James Venter in that role he has been a revelation.
In the past, the Sharks tended to fan out on defence, not committing numbers to the breakdown, but in the off-season the major focus was to turn that on its head and attack the breakdown ferociously.
We have seen the results in the Sharks’ wins over the Bulls and Highlanders. Those were two different games because of the contrasting conditions in Durban and Dunedin, but a constant was the Sharks’ savage approach to the rucks. This Saturday, the Hurricanes host the Sharks and while I am not certain that the Sharks will win, I am confident that they will play well, and that is all Everitt is asking of his players - play consistently well and you will win most of your games.