MARK KEOHANE, in his Business Day Newspaper column, writes the Sharks are playing the most constructive and most intelligent rugby of SA’s five Super Rugby franchises
The Sharks have the look of a squad capable of winning the competition. They have started well before and imploded but there is a calmness and confidence about this season’s vintage that inspires more than it torments.
The best coached of SA’s teams, the Sharks are also the most organis ed and they have played all of their games with a sustained intensity that has been matched only by the Highlanders, whose win against the Bulls at Loftus was as deserving as it was astounding.
The Sharks’ win was made easier because of the sending off of Force midfielder Rory Sidey for an ugly tip tackle on Odwa Ndungane and they played the last hour with a one-man advantage, but to take five points in their first match overseas is huge.
Bismarck du Plessis and Willem Alberts were again colossal and while we have come to expect the quality of display from Du Plessis every weekend, it is Alberts’s form that is a huge plus for the Sharks.
Alberts and Du Plessis were brutal in contact, and the physical dominance of the Sharks in the tackle and when taking in the ball has been a feature of their play this season. They were clinical in the win against the Blues and ruthless in converting field position and possession into points against the Force.
The pack played with purpose and each individual knows his role in the side. They aren’t afraid to play a situation and will counterattack if it is on, but it is their structure that is their strength and the discipline each player shows in playing within that structure.
Watching the Sharks so far has been a pleasure because it illustrates the quality of players in SA . We do have players who are big, brutal and bright. We do have players who can inspire with their minds as much as with their athleticism.
In the Sharks, SA has a title contender worthy of the hype and coach John Plumtree has gradually improved the side in the past three seasons.
This is a team on the rise and what gives their challenge such promise is that they are not yet playing at optimum.
Their three performances have been measured and there has been nothing frenetic about the manner of victory. They kept the Cheetahs, Blues and Force try-less — and that is a remarkable return given the nature of Super Rugby.
If only the Lions could reflect on such defence and intelligence. The romance with the Lions season is being tested and the hope of the first fortnight turned into horror with the defeat against the Blues.
The Lions again were enthusiastic but they were ineffective in controlling the tempo of the match and they were lacking in leadership in the final five minutes, when better decision-making could have taken them to victory.
The decision not to kick for posts from 35m out with four minutes to play was stupid because it would have reduced the deficit to six points, it would have guaranteed a second bonus point and it would also have set up a final two minutes when a converted try would have won the game for the Lions.
The Lions, as in Cape Town a week ago against the Stormers, had no problem winning the ball and showed good patience to keep the ball, but too often they have not played the pressure moments well. It was all too predictable and lateral in the last five minutes and they never looked like breaking down a tiring Blues defence.
The Highlanders, coached for the first time by Jamie Joseph, have been the surprise of the opening month and any team that can get off a plane from New Zealand’s South Island and put 35 points past the Bulls at Loftus deserves a standing ovation. They benefited from referee Stuart Dickinson’s interpretation at the breakdown, but the Bulls failed to react and adapt to the rulings and they were emphatically beaten in a result that no one, bar the Highlanders, would have believed possible.
The Stormers lacked inspiration in beating the Cheetahs and they are a team struggling a lot more than their league position indicates. They will get better, but they will have to improve monumentally to match the efforts of the Sharks.