Gavin Rich looks at the first round of Super Rugby and resolves that the answer to the sharks problems is to turn Dan Du Preez into a lock
“Don’t worry, about a thing, for every little thing is going to be alright…”
Those words, sung of course by Bob Marley and broadcast over the Newlands sound system during the Stormers’ 28-20 win over the Jaguares didn’t always seem apt. Particularly not when the Stormers were under pressure with 10 minutes to go and the Jaguares were pressing hard for a try that would have given them the lead.
There was plenty for the Stormers faithful to worry about then, and for Stormers coach Robbie Fleck. A defeat at the first home hurdle ahead of a tough overseas tour would have been a disastrous way for the Cape team to start the season. There was plenty to worry about at the time, but the Stormers got through in the end.
Yes, there were times when the Stormers tried to force play too much, there were times when they off-loaded too quickly etc, but there were also positives to come out of the match, such as the successful test of their forward depth. They were missing two Springbok locks yet a second row forward, JD Schickerling, was named as man of the match. Don’t bet against him being a starter in Rassie Erasmus’ first Springbok test team.
This could well be the season where Cobus Wiese, who still has a bit to learn but boasts physicality and a work-rate second to very few, could also come through as a strong contender for the Bok No7 jersey. That is unless Schickerling gets ensconced at No5 and Pieter-Steph du Toit moves to the flank. You see, the Stormers do have options, they do have possibilities, they just have to get all their players fit.
The Sharks I am not so sure about, and they certainly do have something to worry about at this juncture of their season. It may be in a concentrated area that their chief concern is found, but it is an important one. Two matches against Western Province at the close of the last domestic season underlined just how important tight five dominance, or at least parity, is if you want to win anything meaningful.
When the Sharks scrum was going backwards in the match against the Lions in Johannesburg it should have been too horribly reminiscent for Sharks fans of what happened in the domestic decider. The Sharks have apparently spent a lot more time in the pre-season working with the ball in training, and that is supposedly going to upskill them.
But you can have all the skills you want, if you don’t have the ball to play with it means nothing. If you don’t have go-forward ball you can’t get momentum. If you can’t rely on your first phase, then breakdowns in play when you are attacking are costly. The bottom line is that the Sharks will be going nowhere until they have sorted out their problems at forward.
There will be much focus on the front-row as the Sharks mull over how to respond to their potential mini-crisis ahead of their next game against the Waratahs on 3 March (they should be pleased to have a bye this week as it gives them time). And so there should be. But to my mind, the problem area isn’t just the front-row, where clearly Beast Mtawarira needs to start and where the experiment of playing Thomas du Toit at tighthead is questionable.
The man the Sharks may be missing more than any other is Etienne Oosthuizen. No, not Coenie Oosthuizen, who will be out until much later in the season, but Etienne, the lock who has departed for overseas. Oosthuizen was often pilloried by fans for giving away penalties, but he did provide grunt that is sorely missed by the Sharks now. He was a genuine No4 lock, which I can’t say for any of the current Sharks trio of Ruan Botha, Stephan Lewies or Hyron Andrews.
As far as I can tell, there is also no other lock on the Sharks’ books that fits the mould, so perhaps it is time for coach Robert du Preez to consider something I know that Gary Gold tried hard to convince him to do when he was coaching the Sharks – convert his son Dan into a lock.
The No8 has the attributes to play that position, and at this time when the Sharks have so much depth at loose-forward, which they will have more of when Jean-Luc du Preez returns from injury, it could make sense to make the switch. Or at least to try it.
Doubling up with the two Du Preez twins in the loose-forwards has always seemed like overkill in the sense that they not only look the same but play the same, or at least similar. Turning one of them, and Dan is the best candidate, into something else might just work wonders for the Sharks. It might seem a radical antidote to the problem, but you won’t know if you don’t try it.