Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – The Sharks somehow seem in need of a revitalising
or mystery element … is Vodacom Super Rugby rookie Garth April the man to
The month that also constitutes the fringe flyhalf’s surname
has proved a notably unproductive one thus far for the Durban-based franchise
-- even if their problems really began in mid-March after a bright
three-from-three start to this year’s competition.
Their fortunes have nosedived with a draw and three defeats
subsequently, and it is not being too dramatic, I believe, to submit that the
Sharks’ season is at a crossroads even with passing of the halfway mark of
ordinary season still a few days away.
Hardly helped by main conference rivals the Lions edging out
the Stormers 29-22 in Johannesburg, their latest reverse to the Blues in
Auckland (23-18) sees the Sharks now a full five points adrift and with several
“stinkers” ahead that severely threaten a widening, rather than closing, of the
The one accusation you couldn’t make against Gary Gold’s
charges was they weren’t resilient and near-desperate against the Blues; there
was effort aplenty and they also led for generous periods.
But that blood they figuratively sweated was also part of a
problem that could only aggravate the degree of the task facing them onward in
New Zealand against the Highlanders – it’s a quick turnaround to the Friday
scheduling, too – and then Chiefs.
Statistics from the clash vary, but they probably made not
far off treble the tally of tackles the Blues (still the lowest-ranked NZ side)
did in an old-fashioned, try-to-hang-in-there performance from a South African
side abroad, with front-foot momentum horribly scarce.
So there will be several particularly heavy-legged Sharks
tourists this week, given their lopsided commitment to defence which eclipsed
any ability or meaningful desire to hold onto the ball consistently themselves.
Their formula only summed up their mounting woes over the
course of several weeks – the team has slipped into blunt, clumsy ways that
characterised too much of their 2015 campaign too.
That much is evident from a tries-for count that stands at a
mere 14 after seven matches; it doesn’t stand up too well to the current best
team in the competition, the Chiefs, who have dotted 39 times, and means the
Sharks are also better only than the Kings (12) across the two “Africa”
conferences in that regard.
Even the labouring Sunwolves and Jaguares have visited the
opposition whitewash more times than they have.
Admittedly the tries-against count (12) shows that Tendai
Mtawarira and company are defensively adhesive: only the Stormers domestically
have leaked fewer (10).
But if the Sharks are to register an upset somewhere along
the line in their remaining two weeks in the Land of the Long White Cloud, you
sense that they may have to try to recover much more of the attacking relish and
sometimes earnest territorial mastery that characterised their sprightly pre-season
in France, for instance, if they are to win in either Dunedin or New Plymouth.
The Eden Park showing contained enough positives – most
especially in team spirit and frantic work ethic – to suggest that an array of
panicked changes to the starting XV wouldn’t necessarily represent the best
message to the squad this week.
But the time may well have come, nevertheless, to try some
fresh ideas in a key tactical berth or two, so how about a maiden start in the
competition for Garth April at flyhalf?
Experienced utility back Joe Pietersen has been the
overwhelming go-to man for the No 10 jersey in Pat Lambie’s ongoing absence
thus far, and he has more often than not coped well in the role.
But perhaps the time has come for Gold to be brave and
realise that “coping” in that important channel isn’t automatically going to
orchestrate wins for you.
He acknowledged just after that successful pre-season
venture to France, where the skilful but raw April, 24, shone in game two
against Toulouse, that the player “has X-factor” and promised as he preferred
Pietersen (and then stuck with him as starter) for the competition opener
against the Kings: “We’ll slowly but surely bring (April) into the mix.”
You could argue that the “slow” part has indeed been that;
maybe now the accent should be a little more on the “sure” component by
entrusting him with much fuller responsibility as the Sharks urgently attempt
to snap their barren trot.
Here’s something else to consider: if Gold is reluctant to
ditch Pietersen’s seasoned acumen in place-kicking at Super Rugby’s often
demanding level, he could give April a crack at the tactical and distributive
string-pulling at flyhalf against the Highlanders, while re-allocating the
former with a role somewhere in the back three and this keeping him available
in the “tee” capacity.
After all, Pietersen has a nifty little historical line in
game-breaking in Dunedin: he scored a solo wonder-try from deep as fullback for
the Stormers in a 21-6 victory there in 2012.
The Highlanders know plenty about Pietersen by now, whether
it be at No 15 or 10; their intelligence on April as pivot will be massively
Isn’t that something that could be made to work in the
underdogs’ favour against the defending champions on Friday?
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