Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – It goes without saying that the current predicament of the Sharks – six losses from as many starts – can’t be healthy for the overall dressing-room mood or confidence.
Despite having almost as many cruelly sidelined by injury, the not insignificant tally of Springboks in their midst appear to be labouring in line with the collective team’s plight, something that may be of mounting concern to national coach Heyneke Meyer as the international season looms.
While it is true that whenever the Boks get together they are pretty good at putting their varying Super Rugby franchise situations – including the fiercer derby rivalries -- behind them in a hurry, it also cannot be denied that losing can become dangerously habitual and play tricks with the mind.
There has been an unusually heavy burden on the shoulders of some of the senior Bok personnel in the Sharks’ midst for much of the season, given the often long-term absence of others which has only increased the onus on the “survivors” not only to consistently turn out, but to perform.
I reckon it is beginning to show ... in a detrimental sense.
Put it this way: which currently active, seasoned Springbok from the Durban-based outfit looks a genuine shoe-in right now for a starting XV in the green and gold if chosen tomorrow?
The Sharks traditionally provide plenty of players to a Bok match-day squad, and although the bulk of them have indisputable credentials based on prior achievements at Test level, right now you struggle to find players from their ranks at or near the very peak of their games.
It must be dispiriting, after all, to sit in a changing room every time to conduct the post-mortem after half a dozen defeats in succession, including the very real possibility now that the Sharks will finish their overseas tour winless as they play a resurgent Reds side in the so-often SA hoodoo city of Brisbane on Friday (11:40) to wind it up.
The Sharks have a fat zero in log points from a possible 15 on tour, albeit not helped on Saturday by some inept and/or one-eyed officiating in the 33-18 loss to the Waratahs. (That said, even the defending champions were again notably below best standards, which tells you plenty about the virus afflicting Gary Gold’s charges.)
Ahead of that result, a wee reminder of the previous five rounds for them: 24-32 v Hurricanes, 15-48 v Highlanders, 10-17 v Bulls, 21-23 v Lions, 10-52 v Crusaders.
Their last win was a ragged 15-9 slug-out against the Force at Kings Park on March 28.
Ironically, one of the better, more constructive Boks in their latest reverse in Sydney was a certain Frans Steyn, the single-minded utility back who is in ongoing dispute with SARU and unlikely – unless something changes quite dramatically – to add to his tally of 53 caps in this key, RWC-dominated year.
Otherwise, there were few “senior” Sharks performances to write home about.
It didn’t help that, not for the first time this season, the side put out altered at the last minute from the one announced a day or two earlier – Tendai Mtawarira was hastily replaced by Dale Chadwick and Willem Alberts also suddenly came in at blindside flank after initially not being named at all in the 23 for the clash.
The much-touted “Bone Collector”, seldom far away from a disruptive niggle or two, was too fitfully involved against the ‘Tahs, occasionally being useful in a physical sense but also looking anonymous at times against an industrious home loose trio spearheaded by mobile dynamo Michael Hooper.
Even Marcell Coetzee, much more renowned for his own ceaseless work-rate, appears to have flat-lined a bit of late, whilst some lingering doubts remain about his sense of peripheral awareness and off-loading skills.
Veteran tighthead anchorman Jannie du Plessis, meanwhile, aided a few powerful Sharks scrum efforts against the decent Waratahs eight, but his defensive and general contribution in open play was again the subject of some critical scrutiny – other No 3s in the South African set-up like the Stormers pair of Frans Malherbe and Vincent Koch and the Lions’ Julian Redelinghuys are often bettering him for carrying and tackling efficiency at present.
Since relinquishing the captaincy, hooker Bismarck du Plessis has gradually upped his once-imperious game: against the ‘Tahs he made occasional vital stops when the home side were on the rumble, and his robust turnover powers in handy situations haven’t dimmed.
Yet he, too, still remains some way off his very best for pure on-field aura and 80-minute intensity and is certainly not yet guaranteed to pip long-time rival Adriaan Strauss to the starting No 2 role for South Africa.
Another experienced Sharks Test player falling short of setting the world alight is JP Pietersen, doing a solid enough fill-in job at outside centre but not to the extent that he looks an attractive Bok candidate this season in that capacity.
He just seems to have surrendered much of his X-factor in an attacking sense: where are those irresistible, galloping surges on the counter or from broken play that were once such a thrilling feature of his armoury?
With a bit of luck, the Sharks will be able to restore him to his most suitable right wing position pretty soon, and then we can gauge whether he is going to capable of beating off someone like Cornal Hendricks – a fair favourite of Meyer’s in recent times, and the incumbent – to the Bok jersey.
A Sharks win against the Reds – the game always looked their best hope of a good tour result on paper – would be a vital, well overdue tonic to the embattled squad.
It might also do wonders for the wobbly mojo of their core Springboks ...
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