Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Any Sharks enthusiast who missed the televised friendly match but noticed later that they sneaked home by four penalties to two unconverted tries against Toulon on Thursday, might have been excused for worriedly thinking: “Uh-oh, here we go again.”
After all, the Durban-based team’s bluntness in the attack department may well have been a key reason for their narrow failure to land a vital home semi-final in last year’s Super Rugby competition, despite bossing the SA conference.
The Sharks, in scoring only 29 tries in ordinary season, were joint second-worst with the Rebels for productivity in that department – the Bulls were the most try-shy, with 28 – even if their chart-topping success in leaking the fewest tries themselves (22) played a role in their credible enough third-place finish overall.
In their first and only intended “proper” pre-season hit-out of 2015 in a wet, muddy Toulon, Bismarck du Plessis’s team failed to cross the whitewash at all, relying on a quartet of successful shots at goal for their slightly fortuitous 12-10 triumph in a forgettable, stop-start affair.
The closest they came to a try was in the opening seconds of the second half, when tighthead prop Matt Stevens, probably not the ideal man to have in the situation, just failed to control a bobbling ball on the line after the Sharks had charged down a clearance kick.
There will be pressure on the re-jigged brains trust at the franchise to inject more consistent X-factor into their play, given that home crowds were well less than robust in 2014 and there were some murmurs that Jake White’s conservative template didn’t help.
In fairness, though, they won’t mind one bit at this stage that they slugged out this one the “ugly” way.
Their new director of rugby, Gary Gold, has only just climbed aboard the strategic bus after his tenure in Japan, and the typically wintry northern-climes conditions they encountered on Thursday were light years from the type they will expect shortly in the early rounds of Super Rugby.
Plus if the Toulon team they encountered was greatly below fullest strength – though it still featured many seasoned internationals from across the globe – the Sharks were only at roughly half or two-thirds strength themselves.
When the all-southern hemisphere hostilities kick off, they will filter back such proven elements as JP Pietersen, Frans Steyn, Willem Alberts, Jannie du Plessis and Ryan Kankowski, among others.
So just getting over the line against the wealthy French outfit was a confidence-boosting outcome, and given the heavy, slippery pitch conditions, they will have every right to protest that any backline vibrancy – almost entirely absent here – can wait for, say, the Super Rugby opener against the Cheetahs if it isn’t too impossibly humid at Kings Park next weekend.
What we did witness was plenty of traditional Sharks muscularity and energy at the breakdown and in mauling play, with the likes of Marcell Coetzee, Mouritz Botha, Pieter-Steph du Toit and skipper Du Plessis himself to the fore.
The Springbok hooker was yanked off at half-time considering the strong shift he’d put in, particularly in pilfering and slowing down opposition ball, whilst Du Toit, returning after missing virtually all of last season through injury, followed him off around the hour mark – a little more worryingly because of an upper-body knock, although the exit may have been more precautionary than anything else.
The exciting young utility forward operated mostly at No 5 lock, but he also provided a few minutes at blindside flank as one of the team’s new recruits, Renaldo Bothma, spent time in the sin bin for a cynical late hit.
That was an area where the Sharks probably need to buck up their discipline fairly quickly: Du Toit also conceded a penalty for a high - though not malicious - tackle at close quarters, and reserve hooker Kyle Cooper was very lucky to escape censure for a nasty, knee-up challenge that angered the home crowd.
Right at the death, too, sturdy replacement centre Andre Esterhuizen gave away a penalty for another late tackle that saw Toulon move right onto the offensive for the closing seconds and set up a nerve-jangling finish.
The Sharks are also likely to put a heavy emphasis on tightening up their scrum efficiency at training over the next few days; it was erratic with some good heaves and some retreats while the likes of Du Plessis and Bok colleague Beast Mtawarira were in the front row, but then considerably more vulnerable once that pair were withdrawn from the fray.
Nevertheless, the squad looked suitably chuffed over their French raid afterwards, letting some champagne bottles spurt and presumably believing that if you can show blemishes yet still boss the scoreboard, you can’t be a bad outfit ...
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