Sharks captain Johann Muller is under no illusions about how far ahead the Crusaders are of his side in their overall play.
This despite their fifth consecutive win, against the Lions in torrential rain at Ellis Park on Saturday. The conditions could have been pointed to as a mitigating factor for the poor quality of rugby on show, but Muller refused to use that as an excuse.
“The world’s best sides adapt to whatever conditions they’re presented with. The Crusaders played in similar conditions against Brumbies in Round 1 and wiped them by 30 points,” Muller told keo.co.za.
“So to point to the conditions as a reason for the quality of rugby we played is nonsense. We were poor, there’s no use in saying we took lessons from the game or anything like that. We played some schoolboy stuff this weekend. It’s counterproductive lying to ourselves – we’re still a long way off the Crusaders.”
Muller said the victory itself, especially away from home, was pleasing, but described the post-match change room as “morbid … it’s as if we had lost..”.
“We have high expectations of ourselves and that sort of showing isn’t even close to what we know we’re capable of,” he said. “We’re stuck in second gear at the moment.”
The Sharks have a bye this weekend before facing the Reds in a fortnight. Muller said they would be training hard on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday before being given the rest of the week off.
“The focus in those three days will be on handling skills. Accuracy in that department is crucial, especially with the new laws that allow quick taps for knock-ons. The best teams will capitalise on errors like that, and cut you to pieces if they are given the opportunity to run at unset defences.”
The Crusaders are very clinical in that facet of play and rarely spill the ball, despite having the tournament’s highest offload rate. Their ball carriers generally have superb handling skills and technique in contact situations and support runners are always expecting the pass.
“That’s were we want to get to,” said Muller. “For us, though, it’s about peaking at the right time. We’ve always maintained that we came into the tournament underdone, with the objective of hitting our straps at the business end.
“We’re happy with were that process is at. [Conditioning coach] Mark Steele has the guys on a strict programme that aims to have them peak physically later in the tournament, while Dick [Muir] and Plum [John Plumtree - forwards coach] are confident that we’ll start to be more clinical at that stage as well.
“The one characteristic of championship-winning sides is that they’re able to grind out a win even when they play badly,” he continued. “I suppose that’s the one encouraging thing about the Lions match. But we want to be more ruthless in future. It’s crucial that we start putting sides away the same way the Crusaders do.”
By Ryan Vrede