JON CARDINELLI writes the Sharks need to address their own inconsistencies at the tackle before they can even think about targeting the Bulls’ weaknesses.
Last Saturday, the Bulls’ superior lineout display and relentless high-ball tactics forced the Stormers to make mistakes. It was an effective game plan against the best defensive side in the tournament, and it’s a game plan that could prove even more effective against the Sharks.
The Sharks’ problems on defence are related to their problems on attack. Indeed it has been the inability to boss the collisions and their tendency to spill ball in contact that has provided the opposition with turnovers all season.
Their proud defensive record in terms of tries conceded (26) doesn’t tell the full story of a campaign that could have been. Had they displayed more respect for possession and adopted a more balanced game plan, they would be in a more secure and confident position.
In the 10 matches following their Round 5 loss to the Chiefs, the Sharks have drifted between the mediocre and the diabolical. The most interesting and damning stats are those related to missed tackles and handling errors. These defensive blunders and butter fingers could cost them a place in the play-offs.
Forget the fact that the Sharks managed to win five of their last 10 matches. They’ve averaged 21 missed tackles a game, and have been fortunate to edge some tight encounters where their first-time tackling was downright embarrassing.
The Cheetahs clash was a classic example. They missed a whopping 48 tackles, but still managed to scrape through for an undeserved victory.
The Sharks’ coaches have finally realised that the defence needs work, but certain adjustments also need to be made to their game plan. They began the season with an overly attacking approach that did produce some spectacular tries, but the problem with this style has become evident as the season has progressed.
When it doesn’t come off, it gifts the opposition turnovers and opportunities. When you are running everything from all parts of the field, you become predictable and thus easier to contain and control.
For all of their attacking reputation, the Sharks have spent a lot of time defending. It’s because of their handling mistakes and refusal to play for field position before unleashing their runners that they’ve exhausted their defence and racked up the missed tackle count.
If they hope to prosper against the the Bulls, they need to improve on defence and with ball in hand. The Sharks need to keep the errors to a minimum, because as seen by the Bulls’ recent display at Newlands, they are very good when it comes to punishing opposition mistakes.
But the Sharks should also avoid making the same tactical errors as the Stormers. The Cape side went into the clash with a premeditated plan to keep the ball in hand, even if it meant trying to build an attack from their own 22. The plan backfired horribly as the Bulls kept kicking on the Stormers’ back three and then feeding off their mistakes.
Handling and defence are not the only areas where the Sharks have struggled for consistency. Composure and drive has been lacking over the last 10 matches, especially in the first half.
They’ve trailed at half-time on seven occasions, and have gone on to win just twice. When other play-off contenders like the Crusaders, Bulls and Stormers (twice) have held the lead at the break, they’ve proceeded to finish the Sharks off in the second half.
A win is needed at Loftus for the Sharks to progress in this competition, but to achieve the improbable, they will have to produce an improved defensive and tactical decision making display, and ensure they start well.
In short, it’s going to take an atypical performance for the Sharks to succeed.