Sharks must alter MO
2 May 2012
JON CARDINELLI says the Sharks cannot afford to make the same mistakes as the Cheetahs in a match against a limited but ruthless Highlanders outfit.
You have to wonder why everybody loves the Cheetahs. There’s a universal respect for the brand of rugby they play, but not enough is made of how that high-risk style is to blame for many a gutting loss.
They were a team that played an attractive brand of rugby last year, yet they finished the competition in 11th position. Nine matches into 2012, and they’ve scored 22 tries but have only won three games. What is really more important?
It was painful to watch them implode against the Highlanders last week. The fact that they relinquished a 21-point lead was damning enough. The manner in which they capitulated was frightening. Their tactical kicking was poor, their defence even worse. Intensity at the tackle point during the final quarter was non-existent.
While they’ve scored some spectacular tries and recorded some dramatic wins, there’s never been an air of certainty about this Cheetahs side. It’s accepted that anything can happen in a game featuring the Cheetahs, as was the case when they overturned a 32-11 deficit in Wellington to beat the Hurricanes. But that unpredictability works both ways, as seen in Bloemfontein last week. Unpredictability is not a trait of a genuine play-off contender.
Because the Sharks are perennial play-off contenders, they are not afforded the same leeway. When they fail, their inconsistencies are rightly criticised. There is no consolation for a team as big as the Sharks to be losing in an attempt to play a beautiful brand.
The Sharks’ record of four from nine is marginally better than that of the Cheetahs, and three four-try bonus points sees them sitting in seventh place on the overall log. There’s still a chance that they will qualify for the play-offs, but to do so they will need to tighten up. They will need to start playing a style of rugby that isn’t so high-risk.
To date, the Sharks have played four of the top six teams and have only won one of those matches. They were outmuscled by the Bulls, Stormers and Chiefs. The only team in the top six that they’ve beaten is Jake White’s Brumbies.
They’ve struggled when they’ve come up against a physical side with a strong defence. Their tendency to make a high number of unforced errors has also played into the opposition’s hands. Many of those aforementioned teams are more dangerous on the counter-attack than they are on attack. They are reputed for their ability to turn turnovers into points.
The Highlanders are another such team and their counter-attacking abilities were highlighted last Saturday. They scored 21 points in quick succession to level the scores. Their dangerous broken-field runners swooped on poor tactical kicks and punished some unstructured defence.
Another feature of that win was the Highlanders’ effort at the breakdown. Their counter-rucking earned many a turnover, and again the Cheetahs were punished for not maintaining their intensity for the full 80 minutes.
While the Sharks have been guilty of a high error rate in 2012, they have also tended to play in patches. What is needed against the Highlanders, and indeed in the build up to the play-offs if they intend to qualify, is a more measured and balanced approach. To go the distance, they will need to go the distance – every week.
They will need to cut down the Highlanders’ counter-attacking opportunities, and to do this they will need to protect the ball at the breakdown and avoid dropping it once it emerges from the ruck.
The Sharks defence has been suspect this season, but it should also be noted that the tactical naivety on attack as well as the slew of handling errors has contributed to a porous defensive showing. When the Sharks lose the ball in contact or at the breakdown, their defence is at that point less structured and thus more vulnerable to a counter-attack.
Ball security against a combative Highlanders pack will be crucial to the Sharks’ success. They will also need to keep the Highlanders pinned in their own territory and pressure them until they crack.
It’s a strategy that’s worked for the Bulls and Stormers, as well as several other teams in the top six. If the Sharks hope to join this elite group and challenge for the title, they would do well to change tack.