Johannesburg - Cell C Sharks director of rugby Gary Gold was putting on a brave face after his team’s six point defeat to the Toyota Cheetahs that started his tenure at Kings Park, but he would be the first to agree that his first taste of the role was the stuff of nightmares.
According to the supersport.com website, The Sharks have been under the radar in their build-up to Super Rugby this year if you compare to the hype that surrounded Jake White’s involvement with the team this time in 2014. However what has been said has pointed to a bold new beginning in terms of game plans and intensity, and many who trekked to the stadium for the opening game would have done so with high expectations.
Perhaps those expectations were a bit too high as the Sharks were under-strength, with Ryan Kankowski, Frans Steyn and JP Pietersen still in Japan, and Willem Alberts still on the injured list. Jean Deysel, now back from Japan, was on the bench, but he has only just returned and probably isn’t the player now that he will be in a couple of weeks.
You also have to question all the talk of running rugby that dominated the Sharks’ build-up. The intent might be right, but at this time of year in Durban, with the humidity turning even games played under a clear blue sky – which Saturday’s wasn’t – into wet weather games. Even Dick Muir, when he was coaching the Sharks, used to instruct them to kick at this time of the year.
So maybe it wasn’t surprising that what did the Sharks in was the pragmatic approach of a Cheetahs team that had Joe Pietersen and Willie le Roux – yes the Willie le Roux who two years ago couldn’t kick – employing a clever kicking game that did the Sharks in.
The Cheetahs scored tries and in the process they may have sent out another message to the Sharks coaches, who put out the message beforehand that to win games you need to score tries. Yes, that may be true, but to win games you also have to stop the opposition from scoring tries, and the 20 points conceded to the Cheetahs in the first half was too many.
Gold was right afterwards when he said there shouldn’t be any panic. The Sharks did look good when they started running the ball late in the game, and they nearly recovered from a 35-22 deficit to win it. The Marcell Coetzee try that was disallowed could so easily have been a match winner with just a little luck.
The Sharks were underdone for this game. Apart from their visit to Toulon, where they beat an understrength home team in a grinding arm-wrestle, they only had a series of chukkas against Durban club teams Rovers and Collegians.
According to the supersport.com website, on the evidence of Saturday’s defeat, it wasn’t enough, for the Sharks lacked sharpness and their attempts at high intensity – and there were attempts at that in the first half – led to mistakes. They were the sort of mistakes that the Cheetahs have always been adept at punishing.
The Sharks were forced to go without skipper Bismarck du Plessis when he had to cry off shortly before kick-off, with Patrick Lambie taking the captaincy reins, but that wasn’t the only disruption. Springbok loosehead Beast Mtawarira joined Cheetahs lock Lodewyk de Jager in being helped from the field with what should be a competition ending injury. Mtawarira’s torn calf muscle will require months of recovery.
So the Sharks are already one man down, and it has to be said that the back-up players in the scrum didn’t cover themselves in glory against a Cheetahs team that destroyed them in the set-piece. That should be a concern for the current Sharks team’s strength looks to be at forward.
Gold, typically, was forthright after the game.
“We are bitterly disappointed in ourselves, we failed to deliver,” said the director of rugby.
“But it is not all doom and gloom. In the last quarter of the game, there were signs of how we want to play. We want to get into the right areas and then break the opposition down through the phases. We came within a whisker of rescuing the game with some very good rugby in the last 10 minutes or so.
“We camped on the Cheetahs 22 and that is the sort of rugby and pressure we want to exert on the opposition. And the style of rugby we want to play. We want to use the ball and ask questions of the defence rather than grind out wins through a kick and chase game.”
To be fair, there were signs of that in the first half too, but the Sharks were just their own worst enemies as they made mistakes that released pressure. Perhaps that is inevitable when you’ve made changes to your game and culture and are playing your first competition match. Gold might be right, it isn’t all doom and gloom. Time will tell, with a marked improvement being sought from the Sharks when they host the Lions in Durban on Saturday night.