April may enliven Sharks’ month

    2016-04-18 17:50

    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 provide it?

    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 gap.

    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 more limited.

    Isn’t that something that could be made to work in the underdogs’ favour against the defending champions on Friday?

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing


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