Lambie key to Sharks’ late surge

JON CARDINELLI says the Sharks’ progress in the 2012 tournament will be determined by a pragmatic mindset and the exploits of their multi-talented flyhalf Pat Lambie.

The Sharks are currently at sixth in the Super Rugby standings. It’s a massive turnaround considering their erratic start to the competition, but they will need to build on that momentum if they intend to succeed where they failed in 2011.

Following wins against the Highlanders and Force, and with the Hurricanes recently upsetting the Highlanders in Dunedin, the Sharks are still in a position where their destiny is in their own hands.

Matches against the Cheetahs (away) and a depleted Stormers side (home) remain before a bye and the break for the June internationals. There’s a good chance they will go into that lengthy sojourn having accumulated a valuable haul of log points.

The improvement of the Sharks has been more gradual than most may suspect. The stats reflect that they are still guilty of too many handling errors and continue to slip tackles on defence. What’s helped them in terms of succeeding on the scoreboard is that they are striving to play in the right area of the field.

It’s because of this shift in game plan that their mistakes have not been as costly.

It may seem foolish to criticise their most recent performance, a showing that yielded seven tries and five log points. But coach John Plumtree has got it right in saying they shouldn’t get too excited.

The Force are going nowhere in this tournament, and while a bonus-point win is valuable in a broader context, this Sharks side will be judged by their performances against the top teams. According to ruckingoodstats.com, the Force missed 22 tackles last Saturday, hardly a defensive performance of a play-off contender.

The Cheetahs may not be in the top echelon but have been competitive for large parts of the campaign. Nevertheless, the Sharks will feel that if they continue to improve, that is if they continue to implement a more territorial-based approach and cut down the unforced errors, they will pick up the win in Bloemfontein.

Their success will be determined in part by the performance of their key player. Lambie made a name for himself in 2010 via a virtuoso showing in the Currie Cup decider, but hasn’t enjoyed sustained success at Super Rugby level since.

Injuries have hampered his growth over the past two seasons, but the good news coming out of Durban is that Lambie’s most recent head knock won’t preclude him from Saturday’s contest.

Lambie has started to show signs of progress in recent matches. He’s been more confident on attack, and while his tactical kicking hasn’t always been accurate, he is starting to grow as an astute game manager. Perhaps most significantly, his goal-kicking has been excellent. Lambie kicked 23 points in the win against the Highlanders, converting every opportunity in front of goal.

The win against the Highlanders is one of the Sharks’ two victories against teams currently in the top six. They beat the Brumbies in Canberra, but it was their performance against the Highlanders in Durban that was more convincing. It suggested they may well turn their season around.

The top teams in Super Rugby are the best defensive teams, and the Sharks have work to do in this department if they intend to remain in play-off contention. What should help their cause is that they have another key ingredient, that is an accurate goal-kicker, that should help them edge some potentially tight games.

The Chiefs have Aaron Cruden, Morné Steyn has started to find form with the Bulls, and the Brumbies until recently relied heavily on the accuracy of Christian Lealiifano. Peter Grant’s boot has already won a couple of games for the Stormers and Tom Taylor has been important for a Crusaders side that is at present without Dan Carter as a goal-kicking option.

Lambie will have a key role to play in Bloemfontein this week and against the Stormers next Saturday. His performance in general play will be influential as the Sharks look to win the territorial battle, but in a close encounter, his goal-kicking boot is likely to be the most decisive.

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