Sharks must marry precision with purpose

JON CARDINELLI writes the Sharks may have rekindled that flame of aggression but will need to be more accurate if they hope to enjoy the benefits of a territory-based approach.

On Saturday, the Sharks got the job done. They weren’t particularly convincing for large periods of the game, but ultimately they showed the necessary composure to win ugly.

Pat Lambie may very well have kept the Sharks in the play-off hunt with a flawless goal-kicking performance, and it was evident how a more conservative, territory-based strategy brought the Sharks relative success.

It’s for this reason that the win over the Highlanders, while an ugly one, could be viewed as a turning point in the Sharks’ season. Some might say the performance was ugly because the Sharks played a boring brand of rugby, but the reality is the Durbanites’ inaccuracies and indiscipline contributed to that ugliness.

The win against the Highlanders was a start, and yet there’s a definite need to improve. They can’t afford to lose this coming weekend, and they can’t afford to keep making the same mistakes over and over.

In the majority of matches preceding Saturday’s clash against the Highlanders, the Sharks’ flawed and frantic run-from-all-corners template was exacerbated by a slew of errors. The Sharks were again guilty of making too many handling errors against the Highlanders, but their intent of attacking within their opponents’ half meant these mistakes weren’t nearly as costly.

Having said that, their poor ball control is still compromising their overall success. They are still conceding too many penalties at the breakdown, and their tendency to lose ball in contact is limiting their attacking potency.

While a greater appreciation for territory is to be commended, the lost possessions also continue to hamper their defence. The defence was much improved on Saturday, both in terms of structure and intensity, but it is difficult to defend from turnover ball. If the Sharks really hope to advance in this competition, they will have to stop putting themselves under pressure in these situations.

While I’ve spoken about territorial intent, the Sharks should be disappointed with their territorial gains as well as their dearth of possession. The Highlanders dominated both last Saturday with 58% territory and 66% possession.

According to ruckingoodstats.com, the Sharks kicked 28 times over the course of the game, a stat that confirms the Sharks’ intent to pin the Highlanders in their own half. What these stats don’t reveal, however, is just how inaccurate the Sharks were in this department. The kick-chase wasn’t great either, and this allowed the Highlanders more space and time to counter-attack.

The Sharks have lacked balance in their approach this season, and while it was necessary for them to kick more against the Highlanders, they overplayed the tactic to an extent. A solid tactical kicking game is essential under the current laws, but the Sharks were too predictable as well as wayward.

The kicking accuracy of both Charl McLeod and Lambie left a lot to be desired. McLeod doesn’t fit the Fourie du Preez-mould, but then a scrumhalf is expected to have the full range of skills at this level. Lambie had a great game in front of goal, but was guilty of booting the ball away aimlessly on several occasions.

If the Sharks can sharpen up in this area, they can be hugely effective. They have a robust pack of forwards and several physical players in their backline. There’s no reason why they can’t succeed in an approach that involves pressuring the opposition until it cracks.

It is a template employed by both the Bulls and Stormers, and one that should be used by Heyneke Meyer’s Springboks this June. It is a game plan that, when rightly executed, can bring success. And despite what some might believe, it’s an approach that can also create try-scoring chances.

Five log points should be the goal when the Sharks host the Western Force this weekend, but they must resist the temptation to revert to a more cavalier approach. The win over the Highlanders was a start, and they must take another step forward with regards to implementing a more structured pattern.

Lambie’s boot will play an important part in the remainder of their campaign, and may indeed be the difference in close matches. But as far as enjoying full value from a smarter tactical approach is concerned, the Sharks must eliminate the unforced errors and employ the game plan with far more precision.

If they can succeed in this manner, the wins will continue to come.

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