The Sharks have shown the Springboks that structure doesn’t mean a bland brand of rugby.
Under former coach Dick Muir the Sharks’ players were encouraged to play a style which emphasised an instinctive approach that sought to empower players to make their own decisions rather than shackle them with a rigid structure. Much like the philosophy of Springbok coach Peter de Villiers.
In his two and a half years in charge and implementing that approach, Muir guided the Sharks to a Super 14 final and semi-final and two Absa Currie Cup semi-finals. But they’ve struggled to adapt to play-off rugby, which often requires a conservative approach based on patient phase play and gradual point accumulation off the boot.
However, under John Plumtree the Sharks have opted for a more circumspect and direct approach. This hasn’t translated into a bland brand of rugby, seen in the fact that they’ve manage to score 26 tries – the second highest in the tournament.
“There is no such thing as expansive rugby,” Plumtree recently told keo.co.za. “With defences as well organised as they are in the modern game you can’t simply throw the ball wide and hope to break them down. You have to earn the right to go wide through patient play and clever manipulation of the defence.”
It may not be pretty, but it’s been effective for the Sharks in the Absa Currie Cup and the shift will stand them in good stead for the play-offs, which they look poised to reach.
Opponents have noticed the switch as well and have been forced to adjust their approach accordingly.
“Plumtree has got them playing a lot more directly,” Blue Bulls flanker Wikus van Heerden told keo.co.za. “Before they used to go wide off first and second phase, but now they’ve employed a more phase-based approach and it’s obviously working for them.
“I expect nothing less than a tough physical encounter in the forwards, but their strength lies in the fact that they are not limited to that type of game because they have some outstanding backs to call on.”
In refining the Sharks’ approach Plumtree has made them an even more potent unit. The Springboks’ emphatic victory over Australia last week showed the value of a structured approach, particularly in the first three quarters of the match.
Once the foundation is set and victory is secured, South African players thrive in a looser game as they are no longer have a fear of failure.
The teams are a study of contrasts. Where the Sharks have tended to be too cavalier, the Bulls have been over-reliant on a structured approach.
They too have made massive strides in evolving their approach, testament to this being that they’ve scored 33 tries in the tournament – a high percentage of those through incisive and clinical backline play.
This makes Saturday’s clash an intriguing one. The sides are so evenly matched that the result could well ride on the form of their goal-kickers or an individual error. Either way, the Durban duel is set to be a cracker.
By Ryan Vrede