Sharks enter decisive period

JON CARDINELLI writes that if the Sharks hope to maintain their status as conference leaders they will need to capitalise on a favourable tour draw.

Anything less that three wins will be a failure for John Plumtree’s men, who have to date eased to two comfortable victories. While the performances have been far from polished, their intensity and tactical appreciation have been unmatched. If they can add a dimension of accuracy to their game, they will trouble their tour opponents.

The Sharks play the Force this week, a team that so nearly upset the Reds in the opening round. The Force were typically stingy on defence and controlled possession for long periods. If not for their 25 handling errors, they may have inflicted as much damage to the scoreboard as they did to the Reds’ pack.

The bye arrived at a bad time for the Force, and they now have to start from scratch. They’ll host a Sharks team that’s built some momentum through two wins, a team that has a reputation for meeting aggressive forward challenges head on.

The Sharks travel to Melbourne thereafter to tackle the Rebels, a team that’s enjoyed mixed success. The win against the Brumbies was a magic moment for the Melbourne side, but the Sharks have nothing to fear as long as they stick to their game plan. They have the right mix of muscle and guile to outplay a Rebels side that is limited in key areas.

Next on the Sharks’ schedule is the Chiefs. While the men from Hamilton have always been known for their ability to counterattack, they used to hold a reputation as one of the tougher units at the breakdown. We’ve seen little evidence of this in the Chiefs’ first two games, however, and these failings have contributed to two defeats. The Sharks are a team that bullies opposing packs before unleashing the backline, and I suspect they will be especially tight against the Chiefs.

The final tour match is by far the toughest. If Plumtree harbours hopes of beating the Crusaders he will need to manage his squad cleverly in the preceding weeks. What is in the Sharks’ favour is that the Crusaders are likely to host this game at Trafalgar Park in Nelson, and so home ground advantage may not be as much a factor.

Winning at least three of these four clashes will keep them in the top two of the South African conference, while winning all four will keep them in pole position. They’re well placed now, and while there’s pressure to perform on this tour, it’s a pressure they need to embrace.

They showed good composure against the Blues last week, and will have further opportunities to put substandard sides away on the coming tour. If they can return from their Australasian sojourn with a three from four return, and ultimately a five from six record, they will be superbly-placed as they begin their home leg of the competition.

That first home game in round seven is against the Stormers, a team that hasn’t won in Durban since 2004. Thereafter, they will enjoy a bye.

The promising halfback pairing of Charl McLeod and Pat Lambie has dominated Super Rugby like they dominated the 2010 Currie Cup. Lambie has impressed with his distribution while his kicking game has also been crucial to the Sharks’ cause. McLeod may not offer as much in the tactical kicking department, but the Sharks have a good alternative to Lambie in fullback Louis Ludik, a player who was hugely influential against the Blues.

What’s been less impressive is the lack of synergy between Meyer Bosman and Lambie, as well as the centre combination of Bosman and Stefan Terblanche. That midfield is under pressure to produce in the coming weeks.

The Sharks’ inconsistent lineout and defence will also require sharpening. Terblanche hailed the latter aspect as a reason for victory last week, but the reality is the Sharks missed 20% of their tackles.

It may seem harsh to criticise a team that is yet to concede a try, but their defensive stats tell a story. The Sharks leaked eight linebreaks against the Blues, and had the Aucklanders not committed 29 handling errors, the contest may have been closer.

A sharper showing is required on tour, a four-game period that could be so crucial to the Sharks’ play-off prospects.

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