Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - It’s much more about humidity than hydrogen, but
the ambitious Sharks, already top of the SA conference in Super Rugby after the
first round, have a local climate-related weapon to call on for the next few
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Conditions for rugby are almost unbearable in Durban at this
time of the year, especially with this competition nudging ever closer to an
early February start these days, and with a heavily home-geared start to 2014
hostilities, various looming opponents are going to find it even harder to
knock over the fancied KwaZulu-Natalians in their own den.
As occurred in their derby opener against the gallant enough
Bulls on Saturday, when victorious Bismarck du Plessis and company nevertheless
showed excellent stamina to secure the four-try bonus point after the siren, it
would be unrealistic to expect unfailingly champagne rugby at Kings Park over the
remainder of this month and then probably March as well.
There will be plenty of times in this period when skills
levels seem to perplexingly abandon even the most gifted of players on display at
the venue, and general tempo drops off markedly at times, too.
But it is not a situation that will perturb the Sharks
personnel too much, because of their better preparedness for the uniquely
Apparently that shrewd schemer Jake White has deliberately
been training his players at times when humidity and the associated perils of
handling the greasy ball and so on are at their peak, and it seemed to pay
dividends in the clear-cut 31-16 win over the Bulls.
As much as they produced some compelling rugby in bursts, the
Sharks look notably well-conditioned this year, even if you might expect it
when they have to train and play in such demanding circumstances at this time
It will please both Sharks and Springbok fans no end that inside
centre Francois Steyn, while surrendering none of his admirable brawn – ask
opposite number Jan Serfontein, mercilessly steam-rolled on one occasion – fits
that trend as much as anyone else after carrying a bit too much puppy-fat last
He produced moments of magic, including that deft
cross-field chip to tee up Odwa Ndungane’s demoralising (for the Bulls) try on
the stroke of half-time to give the visitors just too much of a mountain to
climb in the second period.
Steyn’s assuredness at No 12 also seemed to bring out the
best in his lively midfield partner Paul Jordaan, laid low for so much of last
season but hell-bent on making up lost ground.
You could hardly blame Du Plessis, the Bok first-choice
hooker and new Sharks skipper, for speaking in short sentences in his immediate
pitch-side interview after the match.
“You could see some of the guys out there were walking
(towards the end),” he honestly admitted, adding that “you’re not meant to play
rugby in Durban in February”.
In that whistle-stop interview with a player as the troops
trudge off at the interval, something the TV bosses seem to insist on, another
standout Sharks customer in returned No 8 Ryan Kankowski had described
conditions as “slimy”, given the combination of humidity and night-time dew.
This writer still vividly recalls the misfortune, really, of
attending the Durban derby last season between the Sharks and Stormers: it was
another late summer fixture, on March 2, and a truly turgid, fumbling affair
that had much to do with the desperately sticky, greasy environment.
Significantly, though, it was eventually closed out 12-6 by
the hosts with no tries recorded.
Visiting teams, clearly, are particularly disadvantaged by
tackling the Sharks at their home base early in the Super Rugby campaign, and
this year White’s charges have a tantalising line-up of matches there before
things turn mercifully more autumnal – and the attached potential, thus, to get
a real head of steam in log terms.
New Zealand outfit the Hurricanes are lambs to potential
slaughter – at least in terms of how they deal with the humidity – next
weekend, though the 17:05 kick-off means the dew factor may be a little less
noticeable than observed in the opener against the men from Loftus.
Everyone knows that the ‘Canes have a heritage of
ball-in-hand rugby as their pack tends not to be among the best for grunt, so
their ambitions in that regard may be blunted a bit.
The Sharks then have a bye in the first weekend of March,
before tackling the Lions at home (March 8) Reds again at home (March 15) – the
Queenslanders admittedly may not be too daunted by humidity – the Bulls in
Pretoria (March 22) and then another Kings Park date against the Waratahs on
April sees another early-in-the-month bye, then the Lions
away and a wait until April 19 for a further home date with the Cheetahs, by
which time conditions ought to be rather less murderous.
By then, though, the Sharks will fancy having well-nigh
“murdered” a few unsuspecting opponents if they’ve played their cards
correctly, both in quality-of-rugby terms and how they’ve exploited their
The earliest portents seem pretty good ...
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