IT was rugby Natal made famous; the pity is that it is now being played at Ellis Park and by the Lions.
That was the lingering impression of Round 16 of Super Rugby as the Lions, playing with vigour and enterprise, downed the defending champion Waratahs at Ellis Park while the Sharks laboured their way to a stodgy win over an equally untidy Rebels.
The Sharks, hesitant and unconvincing, appear to be moving in slow motion these days while there is a zip and an energy to the rugby being played by the Lions and, indeed, by the Stormers down at Newlands.
The season has been an ongoing struggle for the Sharks with a litany of well-documented problems on and off the field. And even their victories over the past fortnight were reward more for their resilience in adversity — and in pursuit of a hopeless cause — rather than for the quality of their rugby.
The Sharks, after the many disruptions and the loss of their most influential players, understandably lack confidence and cohesion while the Lions and Stormers, with their heads up and relatively free of injury, are blossoming.
It is now but a distant memory but it was back in February that the Sharks dumped the Lions 29-12 in the wet at King’s Park, scoring four tries in the atrocious conditions. Those were the heady days when the Sharks still had flyhalf Pat Lambie and lock Pieter-Steph du Toit in their ranks and the pair played massive roles in the win that night.
There has been a general slide into oblivion since that day while the Lions have flourished with their skill and ambition bringing unexpected success.
Once upon a time it was a style of rugby synonymous with Natal and the Sharks. In those heady days their attack was based on high-tempo rugby, countering at pace, switches in direction, creating space and off-loading before going to ground; the defence was resilient and organised, a team effort with players queueing up to make tackles.
Today this is the Lions’ winning recipe, one enjoyed by the players and delighting the crowds. It is made possible by the quality of their set-piece and the enthusiasm of their forwards. There is risk to their ambitious approach, and at times they have been careless rather than carefree, but the players’ willingness to work for each other, the commitment, mobility and the exceptionally high tackle rate of their loose forwards, have all helped cover the blunders.
Their tenacity and wholehearted approach upset a Wallaby-laden, motivated Waratahs outfit on Saturday evening and a number of the Lions players are nudging Bok coach Heyneke Meyer ahead of the Rugby World Cup.
Captain Warren Whiteley, who heads the Super Rugby tackle count by some distance, fellow-backrower Jaco Kriel, lively scrumhalf Faf de Klerk and wing Ruan Combrinck are among them. But it is a more mature Elton Jantjies at flyhalf who has perhaps made the most significant advance in recent weeks. His ability to attack the gainline, keep the defenders honest and play his support runners into space is unmatched by South Africa’s current crop of flyhalves.
The problem, of course, is that he is playing an exciting style of rugby that is unfamiliar to the Springboks, and his kicking at goal is erratic.
The Sharks’ undistinguished season has done little for the World Cup aspirations of their players but they did produce a couple of individual highlights against the Rebels.
Replacement centre Heimar Williams, just 23, made his Currie Cup debut for the Sharks in 2011 and played 12 Super Rugby games last year. This year he has been largely ignored but he came off the bench on Friday night to produce the most memorable moment of the night — if you can, for a moment, ignore the silly tighthead dust-up — as he stepped his way through the Rebels defence for an excellent try.
And, out on the wing, S’bura Sithole, strong on his feet, determined and quick, continued his recent encouraging form, running through a couple of defenders for a try and frequently making inroads. But, along with most of his team-mates and possibly because he is presented with so few opportunities, Sithole is reluctant to pass and often dies with the ball.
The Sharks supporters will be hoping that CEO John Smit has struck gold and that Willie le Roux, in the company of a fit Pat Lambie, Cobus Reinach, Jacques Potgieter and one or two others, will spark a Sharks’ renaissance next year.
But, as we have found this year, it is not all about the big-name, individual players. What is impressive about the Lions is that everyone is prepared to muck in, but that is not always true of the Sharks, and it is JP Pietersen who keeps emerging as the glaring example.
The celebrated Springbok wing has spent the last decade playing for the Sharks, chalking up 117 Super Rugby caps. He was a World Cup winner in 2007 and has played in 59 Tests.
A powerful runner and tackler — when the mood grabs him — Pietersen was once a prolific try-scorer. He is just 28 years old and should be at the peak of his powers, a dominant figure in the Sharks backline. Instead he drifts in and out of games — a Clark Kent rather than a Superman.
JP keeps most of the people happy some of the time, but he has a frustrating tendency to loiter and go through the motions. He would not make a Lions team coached by Johan Ackermann