Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - While you have to be cautious in considering the
first pre-season friendly a meaningful pointer, we probably saw glimpses in
windy and wet north London of the brand of rugby Jake White will wish from his
new charges when the Sharks get stuck into Super Rugby 2014.
Their once World Cup-winning director of rugby is very
unlikely to have had a sleepless night after Saturday’s 23-15 loss to English
Premiership-leading Saracens, as there was always a likelihood of this game
going Sarries’ way considering their big advantage of superior sharpness and
fitness in the northern hemisphere’s mid-campaign.
From training for the new season in the steamy Durban
conditions of January to suddenly being transported into a consistently
howling, swirling gale and later driving rain at Allianz Park for this fixture,
it was always likely to be a tough assignment for Bismarck du Plessis and
company and so it duly proved to be.
But the intensity and urgency from both sides was evident,
even as a satisfying spectacle proved elusive given the demanding conditions
plus the Sharks’ staleness in execution and the unfamiliar makeup of certain
combinations on the day.
When they eventually open their Super Rugby account at home
to the Bulls on February 15 - just under three weeks up the drag and with one
further friendly against the Lions at Ellis Park to come on Friday, February 7 - the Kings Park-based crew may well come to feel grateful for such an
uncompromising, competitive wake-up call against Saracens in faraway Barnet.
In fact, the positives arguably outweighed any negatives as
the South African visitors, probably against expectation, actually looked more
energetic, cohesive and purposeful in the second half rather than first – they
“won” the second period 12-3 after a dishevelled opening 40 minutes for them to
suggest that from a conditioning point of view, at least, not much is wrong
with their prep.
They were also playing on an artificial surface, a bit of a
novelty, which may go some way to explaining why they struggled initially in
the scrums – again, this was an area that stabilised a bit as the game wore on,
although the Sharks’ experienced all-Springbok front row taking such strain
before the break was a fairly discomforting sight.
Former Bok tighthead Cobus Visagie (@Drieman3), who had
several productive seasons on Sarries’ books in late career, felt obliged to
say on Twitter afterwards: “@Saracens front row and total scrum effort
definitely showed @TheSharksZA what northern hemisphere scrummaging is all
about. Well done!”
All that said, it is important to bear in mind in an overall
context that the Sharks only put out a starting XV that was some two thirds (if
even that?) of the likely team they will field against the Bulls, last season’s
SA conference winners but likely to face a season of some consolidation after
the exit of several stalwarts from Loftus.
Many critics and bookies believe the Sharks - Currie Cup
champions more recently - will be South Africa’s best hope of netting the
Super Rugby silverware this year, and the theory is unlikely to have lost many
subscribers simply due to Saturday’s hiccup at the hands of a suitably fired-up
Sarries, for whom veteran Southern African-born combatants like Jacques Burger,
Mouritz Botha and Matt Stevens got stuck in with zeal up front.
The longer the game went on, the more the visitors finally
came into their own, really, and after battling to establish a territorial
foothold in the first half - virtually simultaneous yellow cards for locks
Etienne Oosthuizen and Pieter-Steph du Toit hardly helped - the Sharks largely
turned that drawback around.
It seems clear that White will predominantly stack his loose
trios with brawn (fetchers are for beer, remember!) and both of Jean Deysel and
Willem Alberts were handfuls in a ball-carrying capacity.
Their muscle will also be pretty central to a resurgent
Sharks quest to amass strong lineout mauls, an area where fierce domestic
rivals the Stormers have had notable success in recent seasons.
And while on the subject of lineouts, second-half substitute
Stephan Lewies, the 2m-tall stringbean lock, served some evidence of his
promise as a source of possession there, making some good grabs in the near-vicious
wind - this is a department where the Sharks have tended not to be among
leading lights in the southern hemisphere competition.
If White has already served fairly passionate notice that he
sees Pat Lambie (absent on honeymoon for the Saracens clash) as his key,
routine flyhalf choice, his diminutive physical status will be balanced at No
12 by the strapping unit who is Frans Steyn, another yet to have a gallop in
To the name of Steyn for “presence” in that slot, he may now
also wish to add young - but already 104kg - Andre Esterhuizen as primary
back-up, given his busy and constructive contribution against Sarries.
While the Sharks mastermind won’t necessarily be swayed by
evidence from one match, 30-year-old reserve scrumhalf Charl McLeod brought
greater stealth and direction to the berth when he replaced Cobus Reinach at
Allianz Park, so has certainly put his hand up to start the derby opener
against the Bulls.
The Sharks have had a shrill 2014 wakeup call.
Nothing wrong with that, I suspect ...
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing