Sharks showcase SA talents

Keo, in his Business Day column, writes that the Sharks have ignited optimism that South African players can add finesse to their physicality.

New Zealanders should be nervous after 10 rounds of the Super 14. Yes, they have more depth than Australia and SA but there is not much distance between Australia, SA and New Zealand’s best.

The gap of a year ago is definitely closing fast.

With just three rounds to play, New Zealand’s best are placed one and three, Australia’s are two and four and SA’s leading teams are fifth and sixth — and a match away from joining the competition’s top four.

Telling blows were landed by the Sharks in Durban, not only in beating the Blues but in absolutely pulverising a tight five that included three of the first-choice Test tight five, four All Blacks in total and a probable newcomer in the South African-born Greg Rawlinson.

Happily, from a South African perspective, Bok captain John Smit led the assault. Equally encouraging was the ease with which tighthead BJ Botha dealt with All Black Tony Woodcock, while veteran lock Johan Ackermann gave another All Black, Ali Williams, a torrid time.

The Sharks, earlier in the competition, were as impressive in disrupting the Crusaders pack and they dominated the Hurricanes pack, only to self-destruct with ball in hand. The only team that has dismantled the Sharks this year has been the Waratahs, who physically matched them in Sydney and then offered so much more variation in attack than any New Zealand side has managed against them this season.

The Sharks’ visit to Loftus will be a bruising battle and there are no guarantees of a victory, but it is the style of the Sharks that has been a revelation this season. I harped on about it last week and I’ll continue the cheerleading chorus this week. The last 38 minutes of the first half against the Blues were as effective as anything the Tahs or Crusaders have shown this year. That is how well the Sharks are playing and the forward who could benefit internationally from it is Ackermann.

Smit and AJ Venter will definitely be in Jake White’s expanded Springbok squad of 45, but Ackermann is pushing very hard for inclusion. White is also likely to include Albert van den Berg and Solly Tyibilika from last year’s squad, but on form he would struggle to leave out Ackermann, who has never played better.

Ackermann is 36 years old, but that should not be held against him. He is fitter than most 26- year-old locks, harder than any other in the competition and in the Sharks setup he plays to a specific plan, which complements his strength. Ackermann would be invaluable in northern hemisphere conditions. While his Tri Nations exposure may be limited, getting him into the national squad culture now would allow him to be more influential in France next year.

New Zealand have struggled in the Super 14, given pre-tournament hype that this could be the year when four of their five teams take the four leading places. The Crusaders have been consistent, the Blues and Highlanders poor, the Chiefs have been inconsistent and the Hurricanes have been tenacious and terribly fortunate in three of their matches.

What the first 10 rounds of the Super 14 has confirmed is just how close this year’s tri-nations will be, especially with the All Blacks having to play the Boks in Rustenburg and Pretoria. Two Bok wins won’t be a shock. It is achievable, if you combine the best of the five regions and pick the right match 22.

SA’s forward play has been very good in this year’s tournament, although the intensity of the backs, in contact and in defence, has to get better.

Before the tournament there was no expectation that any of SA’s teams would threaten the Kiwi dominance. Now there is reason to have tri-nations expectation, and the Sharks have done most to add a blowtorch to the optimism barometer.