Missing link

GAVIN RICH, writing in SA Rugby magazine, says Meyer Bosman has added a new dimension to the Sharks backline.

Up until last year the Sharks’ search for an inside back playmaker who could make decisions and create opportunities for the players around him was like England cricket’s fruitless search for a world-class batsman actually produced in that country.

At the start of last year’s Currie Cup season Sharks coach John Plumtree spoke about his mission to bolster his inside back resource base, but it wasn’t really necessary as the need was obvious.

The Sharks have always had enough brawn and brute force upfront, and in the professional era they’ve never lacked for physicality. The poorest Sharks teams of the past 15 years have, even in defeat, left their opponents gingerly nursing severely bruised bodies on the morning after the match.

But one of the most famous stories to come out of the 2000 Currie Cup final when the Sharks lost to Western Province summed up a problem that had developed. Legend has it that some of the Sharks celebrated the physical dominance they had exerted on the WP players; it seemed to have escaped them that they had lost the match.

So to sum it up, plenty of brawn but no brains, and even back then it should have been clear what the Sharks needed. Gaffie du Toit had been imported to solve the problem but it was obvious even by then that he wasn’t going to crack it at the highest level. What the Sharks required was a flyhalf or an inside centre, or preferably both, who could act as a seamless link between the forwards and backs.

Joel Stransky and Dick Muir, who filled the two positions making up the key decision-making axis at the start of the 1990s, were the perfect example of what was required. Henry Honiball and Muir also fitted the bill, as did Honiball and Thierry Lacroix.

Those combinations played together in the Sharks’ Currie Cup-winning years, and it wasn’t a coincidence that the Durban union experienced a sequence of lean seasons in the period between when those players left or retired and the Sharks re-emerged as genuine trophy contenders again in 2006.

Those who question why 2006 was so significant need reminding of what happened that year. It was the season the Sharks, under the coaching of Muir and with New Zealander Tony Brown helping nurture the promising young inside centre Brad Barritt, started to turn around a protracted barren period.

Brown’s stint at the Sharks only lasted a few months but it had an impact on Butch James, and it was with James in tandem with Barritt in the 10/12 axis that the Sharks topped the 2007 Super 14 log before eventually losing to a freak last-gasp Bryan Habana try in the final.

So what happened after that? James went to Bath, Barritt went to Saracens, Ruan Pienaar and Frans Steyn were never committed enough to flyhalf and inside centre respectively to make a proper fist of it, and even though Frédéric Michalak did help win a Currie Cup, he didn’t stick around.

The Sharks had the outside backs and the forwards – what they lacked was class in the decision-making positions, with a clutch of journeymen doing a solid job in the interim without ever really taking ownership.

It set the Sharks management on a search for recruits from outside the province who could fit that bill, and the switch to a more fast-paced and possession-based style of play at the start of the 2010 domestic season made the quest even more imperative. As luck would have it, they had a youngster in Pat Lambie who proved well suited to a switch from fullback to the pivot role, and with Jacques-Louis Potgieter and Meyer Bosman joining from the Bulls and Cheetahs respectively, suddenly the land of drought has become the land of plenty.

Lambie’s conversion was really a fruitful, happy accident. So the big fish, the man the Sharks pinpointed last season as the player who could bring the dynamic they were looking for, was Meyer Bosman.

‘We realised Meyer was a player who could bring what we wanted,’ says Sharks assistant coach Grant Bashford. ‘He was always the player who kept the Cheetahs backline together and who made life difficult for us when the Cheetahs played against us.

‘He has played at No 10 for the Springboks, he has a great rugby brain, a good kicking game, and most importantly his excellent distribution skills and decision-making suited the style of rugby we had decided we wanted to play. He really does have a great passing game and he is a player of great intelligence, so we decided to make a concerted effort to get him to move to Durban.’

Luckily for the Sharks they made this decision at the same time that Bosman was thinking he needed a new challenge in his career. He turns 26 this year, and Bosman  knows that now is the time to make his move if he wants to fulfil his wish to get a regular taste of what he experienced only fleetingly as a 20-year-old.

More than five years have passed since he first hit the headlines as Jake White’s surprise flyhalf choice for two Springbok Tests against Wales and France.

‘Although I didn’t take my opportunity when it was offered I wouldn’t say I’m disappointed because there have been many highlights in my career,’ says Bosman. ‘But it’s still one of my goals to play for the Springboks again. That ambition didn’t play a direct role in prompting my move to the Sharks, but if you look at it logically it does make sense that if you excel for a team that does well in the Super 14, your chances of being selected improve considerably.

‘I like the way the Sharks play, I’ve always admired the professional environment here, and I reasoned it would be a place that would offer me great opportunities. I enjoyed my six years at the Cheetahs, but I had reached a stage in my career where I needed a new challenge. It’s not like I’ve sat down and decided I want to play for the Boks at the World Cup or even in 2012. It’s more a case of me wanting to be part of a team that has a good Super Rugby campaign and then to take it from there.’

The emergence of Lambie as an astute playmaker has suited Bosman as he has been happy to ease himself into the Sharks system. He has been reluctant to come in and take charge of the backline communication, something often expected of an inside centre.

‘Not only do I have Pat on the inside making decisions, I also have the experience of Stefan Terblanche on my outside. So there hasn’t been pressure for me to take any kind of leadership role or to be too prominent as a decision-maker or communicator,’ he says. ‘I’m not being pressurised to force anything. I see my main role as providing continuity as a link between the flyhalf and the outside backs, just to ensure that everything functions smoothly for the Sharks.’

In the early rounds of this Super Rugby season Bosman may be happy to be an almost inconspicuous link in a smooth functioning Sharks chain, but Bashford doesn’t see it staying like that.

‘The leadership role will come and his playmaking abilities and communicative skills will start coming through in time; I have no doubt that he has that ability,’ says Bashford.

‘At the moment he is just using the fact that he has Pat and Stefan around him to his advantage so that he can settle in. He doesn’t want to be seen as a guy who comes in and calls the shots straight away. Once he becomes more comfortable in the environment and with our plays you’ll see him starting to come more into his own as a leader and communicator at No 12.’

Bashford has been impressed by the work ethic that Bosman has brought with him from the Cheetahs.

‘He was honest with us and admitted that his defence had let him down a bit when he was with the Cheetahs. He has worked really hard on his defensive game.

‘His pre-season was hindered a bit by a groin injury when he first arrived in November, but since he joined up with the squad he has done really well. We were pleased with the way he fitted into the team in the pre- season games.

‘What we want from him is the dynamic playmaking at inside centre that he provided for the Cheetahs. We see him as a player who will make the right decisions, who helps the flyhalf control the game and who is the creative presence that can make opportunities for the players around him.’

Bosman says that although he made his international debut at No 10, inside centre is the position he feels is tailored for him.

‘Obviously it helps that I have played flyhalf as it means I know what a No 10 expects from a No 12. To some extent I think the positions are interchangeable,’ he says. ‘But I also think the two positions require different skills and attributes. The inside centre has to get involved in play a lot further away and whereas the No 10’s main role is to make decisions and be a director of operations, a No 12 has to get stuck into the rucks a lot more.’

Apart from his distribution skills and rugby brain, the other boon that Bosman brings to the Sharks is his ability as a goal-kicker. He didn’t take the long kicks during the pre-season as he didn’t want to aggravate his groin. However, he did start kicking again at training in late February.

‘That is a big bonus for us as it takes a bit of pressure off Pat and gives us more options,’ says Bashford.

Options are something the Sharks have plenty of now that Bosman has joined them. With Potgieter also there to back up Lambie, it’s hard to imagine the Sharks needing to push Bosman to flyhalf, but he has plenty of experience there and as long as he is at 12 he will take a heck of a lot of pressure off whoever is wearing No 10. The Sharks suddenly have plenty of what they lacked before – the search for brain and creative ability looks like it’s over.

– This article first appeared in the April issue of SA Rugby magazine.

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