I was sent this article by a friend of mine who spotted it on SuperSport and whilst its always nice to be referenced in this way (thanks #GavinRich), the article itself is a good read so for those of you who don’t follow #SuperSport – here goes….
Certainly the next couple of weeks are going to be very interesting indeed!
Every time the Cell C Sharks score a win there are mutters in the background that they still have to travel overseas, but at the rate they are going they will leave for Australasia needing to do very little to confirm themselves as the winners of the South African conference in Vodacom Super Rugby.
It has been written that the Sharks, in beating the Lions at Ellis Park this past weekend, showed that they are not as commanding away from home as they are at Growthpoint Kings Park. But that should surely be a given in a season where until the past two weeks home ground advantage was so important, and these days a win over the Lions in Johannesburg is not something you just accept as an expected event. You have to work for it.
The Sharks had to work hard for their win, and for the second successive trip to the highveld they had to put up with an early injury to a flyhalf. Fred Zeilinga’s hamstring went a bit later than Patrick Lambie’s bicep muscle did at Loftus a few weeks, but it was early enough. This time though there was experience on the bench in the form of centre Paul Jordaan, and it meant that Frans Steyn moved to flyhalf whereas at Loftus young Tim Swiel found himself at pivot.
So the Sharks had an experienced player calling the shots, and his skipper Bismarck du Plessis said afterwards that Steyn was the best player he has ever played with, which is high praise indeed. It was not clear whether Du Plessis was referring to the siege-gun boot that turned the course of the game with two massive penalties in the second half, or Steyn’s general play, but in both respects the product of Aliwal North was good.
It meant that the Sharks won their sixth game out of seven to go top of the log ahead of the Brumbies, who held on to beat the Reds in Brisbane on Friday at the start of a weekend where most of the results were what would have been predicted beforehand. The only possible exception to that would be the Waratahs going down to the Western Force, though it has long since become clear that the Force deserve to be taken seriously – particularly in Perth.
The Sharks’ ascendancy at the top of the overall log is just two points, but it is in the conference battle that they are particularly dominant and could be said to be on the brink of clinching it even though there are many games still to be played in the league phase. The Vodacom Bulls tripped up against the Highlanders to leave themselves nine points adrift, and the Sharks should be expected to power further ahead as they host the Cheetahs and Highlanders in successive weeks before leaving for tour.
Unless they flounder unexpectedly and the Bulls make a dramatic improvement, the Sharks should leave for tour more than three wins ahead of their nearest South African opposition. That might be too much to make up in the last months of the season.
While the Sharks top the overall log and are the proud flag-bearers of the South African challenge, the weekend was not a completely positive one from a local rugby perspective as it appeared to provide further confirmation of the superior conditioning of the New Zealanders that Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer spoke about after the last end of year tour.
For the third week in a row a New Zealand team piled on the points after halftime at altitude. The Chiefs did it late in the game against the Bulls at Loftus a fortnight ago and then in Bloemfontein last week, and then this past weekend it was the turn of the Crusaders to simply outlast a Toyota Cheetahs team that tried to play quick paced rugby but shot its bolt by the 60th minute.
You want to know why South African teams don’t overnight change their playing style away from forward domination to the wider game played by the Kiwis? Well the reason was surely provided in Bloemfontein this past weekend, as it was the week before.
But hang on, we’ve seen this movie somewhere else, haven’t we? Yes, we have. The Springboks tried to run at the All Blacks in The Castle Rugby Championship decider last year and only succeeded in blowing bubbles in the last minutes as the All Blacks ran right over them, just as they had at Soccer City 12 months before that.
When former All Black coach John Mitchell was coaching the Lions he got them to play a structured wide game and it won them a Currie Cup, but he did so by putting them through a conditioning program that was considered so tough that it featured as one of the sparks for the events that eventually saw him part ways with that union.
The Mitchell legacy lives on in the sense that the Lions are still regarded as the fittest of the South African teams, although the Sharks, who were put through the ringer by Jake White in the off-season in an attempt to get their fitness up, did outlast them this past weekend.
So it will be interesting to see how the Sharks go once they bump into teams like the Chiefs, who by the way are looking anything but championship material at the moment even though their narrow win over the Rebels was enough to keep them within three points of the leaders.
As the Sharks have a significant number of Springboks, current national coach Heyneke Meyer will be watching with interest to see if one of his predecessors’ hard work on the conditioning of the players has paid off. Of course the Sharks aren’t showing any signs of wanting to play it the New Zealand way at present, and are employing the suffocate and subdue before penetrating tactics that Meyer’s team does when they aren’t playing a Championship decider, so that will help.