Breyton Paulse

X-factor key for Sharks

2011-06-21 17:11
Patrick Lambie (Gallo Images)
Breyton Paulse

A few weeks ago we spoke about the importance of having X-factor players in crucial games and nowhere was it better illustrated than in the Sharks’ superb win over the Bulls at Loftus.

Up until this game the Sharks appeared to be idling. They were going nowhere, and were fortunate to get out of some difficult situations in the second halves of matches against the Cheetahs and the Lions. But what a turn-around it was in Pretoria, where the Sharks produced a performance of outstanding quality to knock the champions out of the competition.

There were several factors that doubtless played their part, and Sharks coach John Plumtree was right to compliment his team on their 100% commitment to the cause. There have been times when we have questioned the togetherness and drive of the Sharks team this season, but there was no question they were all pulling together and in the same direction this past weekend.

But as important as the determination the Sharks showed in executing their game was the contribution made by X-factor players such as Patrick Lambie, Frederic Michalak, Lwazi Mvovo and JP Pietersen. Lambie appeared to revel in the opportunity to play fullback, which gave him the freedom to rove around quite a bit, and the Bulls never seemed certain who was going to be at first receiver, Michalak or Lambie, once an attack went beyond a couple of phases.

Going into the Super Rugby Finals Series the rugby played is bound to become more conservative as the emphasis will just be on winning, with the four try bonus point falling out of the equation. With defences dominating more, matches will be turned and won on small bits of magic, a moment of inspired genius from a player with the X-factor, and in that sense teams like the Sharks and Crusaders are well placed.

No-one needs reminding of what Sonny Bill Williams can do for the Crusaders, the havoc he can create in opposition ranks not only with his strong running but also those skillful off-loads. He has inside him a player in Dan Carter who also has the X-factor, a man who can turn the course of a game in an instant.

So Saturday’s match between these two teams will be interesting. Much though I would like to see the Sharks advance, it is unlikely, for no matter how much you might want to think otherwise, travel is a massive factor. Nelson is a long way from Durban, and the Sharks only left last night – well they were scheduled to, it depended on the dust cloud hanging over Australia – and are due to arrive at their destination on Thursday.

They are up against a team that will be motivated by the most recent earthquake in Christchurch and the emotion of wanting to bring home the main prize to their devastated community. Having said that, the one thing the Sharks have always done well is respond when they are written off, and they seem to relish the tag of being underdogs. So who knows…but I just think it is unlikely.

Neither of the two teams playing in the other qualifying game have much chance of advancing far in the Finals Series, with the Blues having struggled quite a bit since losing one of their big X-factor players, fullback Isaiah Toeava, to injury. The Waratahs too have key players out, and have also struggled for consistency.

At home you would favour the Blues, but this is probably as far as they are going to go in the competition as they shouldn’t be a match for either the Stormers or the Reds. Of the two top teams, the Stormers looked the more impressive this past weekend, and appear to have regained some of their attacking flair with a backline selection that looked to be geared towards all-out attack.

Gio Aplon reminded us of his X-factor potential with the way he exploited the half chance offered to him for the first try, and having Juan de Jongh at inside centre with Jean de Villiers still involved from the wing, adds a lot of attacking potency to the Cape team’s game. At the same time, their game against the Cheetahs was one where maybe they sacrificed some of their usual sound defensive organization for attack, as it is a long time since they last conceded four tries.

Peter Grant, who was a surprising omission from Peter de Villiers’ latest Springbok squad, made a big difference with his controlling influence at flyhalf. This match showed us how much he was missed when he was away. I hope Duane Vermeulen is not missed to the same degree in the semi-final. Injuries could still play a role in determining who wins the competition.

The Powerade Chosen One for this week has to be the Stormers as they are the first South African conference winners and that is quite an achievement if you consider their tough draw, which saw them start the season a week late and then have the competition divided into two segments of eight. Given their workload in the second half of the season it was imperative that they end in the top two and thus enjoy a bye this week, and that has made all the difference to their title hopes.

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Breyton Paulse is a former Springbok player and is the Powerade "Chosen One" expert columnist

Disclaimer: Sport24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on Sport24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Sport24.



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