Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Sorry, it doesn’t cut it for me to hear people state upon their crushing exit on Saturday from Super Rugby 2014: “Well done Sharks, at least you got to the semis.”
If they are simply putting it in the context of their superior performance in relation to the other South African sides, my retort is “big deal”.
This was a year, after all, when the collective SA challenge was lamentably disappointing and our teams hogged the basement terrain on the overall table.
So yes, the Sharks did punch way more effectively than the rest of the motley domestic bunch ... but that’s only comparing them to the year’s rotten apples and bypassing the altogether shinier, Australasian-dominated ones.
Losing semi-finalists, and by a humbling margin to the Crusaders in Christchurch, is not a whole lot to write home about when doing a post mortem on a Jake White-coached team who were strongly fancied at the outset this year to be (still so importantly, as highlighted again) home semi-finalists at least and also potential title-winners.
They appeared to have the depth of personnel to fulfil that expectation: certainly they ended the eternally gruelling campaign with the vast majority of their biggest guns in the selection frame rather than sidelined by injury.
Instead the best that can be said, in White’s first year in charge – who knows if there’ll definitely be another from the fairly nomadic-minded character? – is that there was solid improvement on their 2013 effort when they ended eighth in John Plumtree’s final campaign, compared to this year’s third.
Sadly the Sharks just failed to get into the coveted, near-essential top two berths and there was probably some wisdom in the words on Twitter of a former Sharks stalwart in Ollie le Roux when he said they probably botched their assault in the damaging 27-20 defeat to the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein three weeks ago.
Fine margins can make big differences in this competition, although the Sharks were pace-setters for much of the ordinary season and just seemed to go painfully stale at critical times, especially toward the business end.
On that note, the general conservatism of their game-plan warrants intense scrutiny.
It is an undeniable fact, I think, that teams with a notably heavy emphasis on “suffocating” opponents, often being content not to actually have the ball and relying on tactical-kicking accuracy and the enemy’s mistakes, are yet to prosper in terms of the overall prize in Super Rugby – at least since it was greatly expanded and remodelled for the 2011 season onward.
Compatriots the Stormers, who for a couple of years were also used to occupying prime position on the overall log for significant spells, without eventually quite managing to go all the way to the silverware, are probably rueing retrospectively – especially with their ongoing, possibly associated catalogue of injury absenteeism – their low-risk, big-tackling game that didn’t help fill the trophy cabinet.
Super Rugby is not Test rugby, and perhaps fittingly so: a defence-geared approach can work in -- and of course sometimes throughout -- the nail-biting knockout phases of a World Cup, but it’s been shown to come up short to an increasing degree if you employ it too obsessively at the slightly lower tier of the game.
As the educated Brendan Venter reminded recently, the “strangulation” rather than ball-in-hand method does require peculiar levels of energy and precision, week after exhausting week for the many months of Super Rugby, to be successful.
Former Springbok coach Nick Mallett, not unusually, didn’t mince his words in the SuperSport studio on Saturday after the Sharks’s 6-38 Christchurch hiding: “The Sharks’ game-plan is flawed ... it’s not attractive or successful.”
What you can say in White’s defence (and he’s won a World Cup the predominantly grinding way!) is that lamentable execution of intended plans by his charges wreaked havoc with their quest to advance to the showpiece.
In a nutshell, the Sharks’ accuracies in a variety of departments came up way short against the multi-layered, seven-time champions Crusaders for whom this was a 13th year on the bounce of semi-final presence at the very least.
The formula does, also, require a need for staying in touch on the scoreboard to be effective: if you start leaking points you will inevitably have to start scratching around for a Plan B that may not exist to any meaningful degree if your mindset is focused squarely in one way.
By the time the ‘Saders had powered in front by around 10 points even before the break, you just sensed there might be no coming back from the jet-lagged visitors and that things might even turn reasonably ugly: they did.
So, another year of South Africa coming up empty in the conference-styled Super Rugby, and a time for a widespread rethink -- if coaches and other strategists are open-minded enough to acknowledge the need.
One silver lining is that several, severely flogged Boks in the Sharks’ ranks have an extra week’s rest before the Castle Rugby Championship ...
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