Sharks blend power with purpose

JON CARDINELLI says the Sharks’ brutal forward showings have catapulted them to the top of the log after three rounds.

The Sharks have been dominant in their three wins against the Cheetahs, Blues and Force. They’ve looked the best team in the South African conference and indeed the whole competition, and the assertion is supported by the stats.

They’re the best defensive unit having conceded zero tries and just 33 points (only the Hurricanes and Stormers have conceded less, but then they’ve played fewer matches). The Sharks’ attack is starting to fire, and following Friday’s meeting with the Rebels, they may eclipse the Waratahs as the tournament’s leading try-scorers.

The Bulls and Stormers set the trend in forward play last year, but 2011 has been the year of the Shark. Their pack has laid the foundation for three comprehensive victories, blending uncompromising physicality with expert execution. They haven’t always been accurate, but the fact that they’ve maintained their high standards of intensity has allowed them to control possession and have multiple cracks at the opposition defence.

Bismarck du Plessis has been in fine form, and Beast Mtawarira is another big ball-carrier for the Sharks. It’s going to be a tough call to replace either of these players with Springbok captain John Smit, who acquired the tag of ‘utility front-ranker’ in the off-season. Smit will get a start, but perhaps not in the big games.

While the tight five has been good, the loose trio has been exceedingly impressive. The Sharks have depth in the forwards, and the first three matches have highlighted the fact. Jacques Botes, Keegan Daniel, Willem Alberts and Ryan Kankowski have mixed and matched, but no matter the combination, the Sharks machine has continued to rumble forward.

A Springbok tourist last year, Daniel has enjoyed a great start to the Super Rugby competition. We’ve witnessed his high work-rate in a defensive capacity thus far, but he’s also shown that when he gets an opportunity to run, he makes it count.

Super Rugby is a tier below that of Test level, and it’s a tournament where Kankowski has enjoyed perennial success. He’s had the advantage of playing behind a dominant tight five, and like Daniel, he makes the most of his opportunities. Kankowski was at his best against the Blues, averaging 10m every time he carried the ball.

While the collective has been powerful, Alberts has proved himself to be in another class. The blindside has got through a mountain of work on defence, delivering hits of such timing and ferocity that the opposition momentum is often stopped dead. The only fear is that he may end up injuring himself in the process, as was the case against the Force. The only thing that brings Alberts down is Alberts.

Opposition teams have, however, attempted to cut down his space. The Cheetahs and Force limited his gain-line efficiency to 60 and 67% respectively, but in concentrating on Alberts, they’ve had to neglect the other danger men in that Sharks pack. Alberts has also displayed a willingness to offload in the tackle, a skill that must be developed further if he’s going to start for the Boks at the World Cup.

Unsurprisingly, he enjoyed his best outing against the Blues with a work-rate of 11 tackles, four offloads, 10 ball carries and a gain-line breaching average of 86%.

Highlanders flanks Alando Soakai and Adam Thomson boast some impressive stats, as do the rest of the hardworking forwards form Dunedin. But they are still some way behind the Sharks, a team that is still gathering momentum and working out the small flaws in their game. If they continue to progress, they’re going to be nigh-on impossible to topple.

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