Ball retention will limit penalty count

JON CARDINELLI writes that the team that holds the ball will hold the ascendancy in Saturday’s Currie Cup final.

The law changes have led to an about-turn in playing philosophy. In 2009, the team that didn’t have the ball often prospered by pressuring the team that did. In 2010, the reverse is true, with attacking teams that respect their possession enjoying the most success.

The Stormers and the Bulls adapted quickest and won through to the Super 14 final. While New Zealand franchises fared poorly in the Super 14, the national side adapted at Test level and won the Tri-Nations. Similarly, the Sharks and Western Province have been the two finest attacking sides in the Currie Cup, and it’s little surprise they’ll contest the decider.

The Sharks have been compared to the All Blacks, and in some cases the Reds, because they respect their possession. This is not to say they don’t utilise the kick as a tactical weapon, or that they run the ball from all corners. They have some of the most powerful ball-carriers in the competition, and are known to soften up the opposition before sending it wide to their talented speedsters.

Willem de Waal’s a tactical genius at domestic level, using his exemplary kicking game to boot WP into promising positions. But the change in the laws has also demanded that he feeds the backline so that his team doesn’t waste possession through aimless kicks.

It’s only in the latter stages of the competition that WP have begun to strike a balance between ball retention and tactical kicking. Having Jean de Villiers back in the side provides them with an extra ball-carrying option in the backs. He’s able to make metres and retain possession for the next phase of attack.

WP coach Allister Coetzee has spoken about discipline as being crucial to the final outcome. He said a moment of brilliance or an instance of stupidity could be the difference. He was referring to the decision-making on attack and defence. Both teams will need to know when to push referee Craig Joubert this Saturday, and when to hold back.

Statistically, WP are the second-best team in the competition when it comes to penalties conceded (the Cheetahs are the best with only 131 penalties conceded during the league stage). It’s interesting to note that apart from the lowly Leopards, the Sharks have the worst penalty record, having given away 170 penalties during the round robin phase.

The Sharks have struggled at times with their discipline, particularly in the fixture against the Lions in Johannesburg. But in the big semi-final clash with the Bulls, they produced an improved showing. This performance showed that in a high-intensity, all-or-nothing game, they could keep their aggression in check.

With Joubert refereeing the final, all bets are off as far as season stats are concerned. A Super 14 study done on the referees and their varying management styles revealed that Joubert favoured the attacking team 90% of the time at the breakdown. It’s a figure that suggests keeping the ball in Saturday’s final will prove prosperous.

Keeping the ball doesn’t mean either side will look to chuck it around sevens-style. It will be a war of attrition, with both the Sharks and WP waiting for the opposition to make the early error. And both teams have the kickers to translate penalties into points.

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