Sharks have ‘H-bomb’ ally

    2014-02-16 22:41

    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 weeks.

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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 challenging conditions.

    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 of year.

    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 year.

    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 March 29.

    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 meteorological ally.

    The earliest portents seem pretty good ...

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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