Sharks’ game needs further polishing

JON CARDINELLI writes that while the Sharks have made significant strides over the last two weeks their ball retention and defence still require work.

Two wins from five doesn’t make for satisfactory reading, but the good news for Sharks supporters is that John Plumtree’s charges have improved steadily over the past fortnight.

They rallied from a 17-point deficit to beat the Reds, and so nearly beat the Waratahs in Sydney last weekend. A higher degree of accuracy at the set pieces and breakdowns has contributed to their overall improvement, as has their discipline.

The most recent clash in Sydney was always going to be a challenge, even more so given the Sharks’ depleted second-row stocks. Nevertheless, the Sharks lineout functioned well, securing all the possession on their own ball.

They missed a specialist No 5 in terms of contesting at this set piece, as the Waratahs also boasted a solid and dependable lineout. A player of Ross Skeate’s height and skill would also have helped them at the kick-offs.

The stats from Saturday’s clash highlighted the fact, as of the Sharks’ seven kick-offs, they only regained possession on one occasion. The Waratahs were far better at disrupting the Sharks in this area, as they regathered four of their seven kick-offs.

Unfortunately, the Sharks will have to make do without Skeate or another specialist No 5 in Alistair Hargreaves for the time being. They will need to produce an improved showing at the kickoffs when they they play the Brumbies this Saturday, and will also need to bank their lineout ball to ensure the Brumbies do not build momentum.

The Sharks were combative at the collisions last week, and also showed a greater degree of control at the breakdowns. They conceded just six penalties in all, and only three at the breakdown, a massive improvement from their earlier showings where they battled to adapt to the referee’s harsh interpretations in this area.

While they were typically physical, they were still too inconsistent. Flank Marcell Coetzee had another massive game making a whopping 25 tackles, but overall the Sharks missed 27 tackles. It allowed the Waratahs to make inroads into Sharks territory, and pressure the Durban-based side until they eventually conceded points.

It might be said that the effects of travel caught up with the Sharks, but the stats don’t support this argument. The visitors had 49% of the possession and 53% territory in the first half and still managed to lead the Waratahs 17-13. In the second stanza, they enjoyed a dominant 68% of territory. Late defensive lapses cost them in the closing stages, but so too did their inconsistent efforts with ball in hand.

The Sharks made nine handling errors in all. Some of these were made in promising field positions where a player didn’t expect the pass or got in the way of a team-mate, and so on some occasions the Sharks allowed the Waratahs to escape from the danger zone without conceding points.

It’s been hard to define the Sharks style in 2012, as they have looked clinical at times and completely disjointed at others. They can hurt the best defences when they build up a head of steam and bring their dangerous backs into play, but often it is poor 50/50 decisions with ball in hand that see them surrendering possession as well as the initiative.

They have the makings of a good team and should pose even more of a threat when forwards like Skeate, Hargreaves and Jean Deysel return from injury. But unless they can start stringing some 80-minute performances together on tour and recording big wins, they are going to leave themselves with too much to do in the second half of the competition.

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