Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - This may still be the early period where strength (or otherwise) of opponents isn’t too easy to gauge yet, but the Sharks almost indisputably look the sharpest, most cohesive South African team out of the blocks after two rounds of Super Rugby 2019.
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The big difference between underachieving Sharks teams of the recent past and the first 160 minutes of what we’ve witnessed from them this year is that they appear to have struck the balance - some would say not before time - of combining their renowned physicality with more subtle touches and greater involvement of their outside backs.
While grilling the modest Sunwolves away (45-10) wasn’t any special reason to go dilly in Durban, signs of renewed appetite and dynamism were already evident then, and there were healthy periods of pleasing “follow-up” on that front as they then saw off the Blues by a wider margin (26-7) than some might have anticipated at Kings Park on Saturday.
With overall table-topping status by two points from the defending champion Crusaders - who have not yet managed a bonus point despite their own two wins - and 10 tries to their credit already with just two leaked, Robert du Preez’s charges have a strong, confidence-swelling head of steam.
Nor ought the Stormers’ dramatic late snatch of the spoils against the Lions at Newlands on Saturday have any special effect on smarter sages’ predictions in the lead-up to the Sharks’ big home coastal derby against them this weekend: they ought be installed as pretty clear favourites, even without the luxury of examining the respective XVs that will run out yet.
All we learnt in the disappointingly mediocre Cape Town clash was that the Stormers players do somehow retain a decent enough sense of pride and grit despite their boardroom-level shenanigans ... but from a rugby perspective, they all too clearly remain a long way off a crisp and dynamic force.
“Oh well, we won it the Allister Coetzee way,” I heard one Newlands enthusiast sigh after the frankly fortuitous 19-17 victory.
You could understand to some degree where he was coming from, but he was also a little wide of the mark because the way they squeezed out this result was closer to an insult to “Toetie” if a comparison was going to be made to his era.
Then, the admittedly conservative Stormers so often clinched tight matches because of their discipline and the amazing, bloody-minded integrity of their defence: not something the current crop, whose overall battleplan somehow looks all at sea, can boast at this stage.
In short, they look significantly inferior to the Sharks both from a front- and back-foot perspective in early 2019, and it took all of 165 minutes for them to earn their first try of the competition, through pint-sized reserve scrumhalf Herschel Jantjies on Saturday.
While the Stormers naturally have too many decent names on paper to completely write them off, and must be praised for their result turnaround from Loftus, I will be close to staggered if they prevent the present, smooth-firing Sharks from going three-out-of-three in the competition in their own den this weekend.
There just seems a whole different energy and intensity about the Sharks this year, and their “total rugby” has been a bit of a sight for sore eyes.
The introduction of David Williams as their skills guru seems to be bearing speedy fruit; he may well be a perfect foil for head coach and no-nonsense sort of taskmaster, if you like, Du Preez.
There are still plenty of colossally committed, hard-driving figures in their pack, make no mistake, but even the behemoths appear to have bought into a new spirit of shifting the ball around with glee through deft offloads and inventive running lines.
What is happening as a key offshoot, too, is that certain potent names in wider areas of the park are no longer catching the sort of “colds” they did last year and before, curtailed primarily to tackling chores.
Instead Lukhanyo Am, Makazole Mapimpi, S’bu Nkosi, a liberated Curwin Bosch and rookie, lean-framed flier Aphelele Fassi have all revelled much more generously in space suddenly made available to them, or the empowerment to make shrewd, incisive decisions in attacking moves which are also starting more spiritedly and effectively from deeper areas.
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One lingering doubt I have harboured about the current Sharks team is the composition of the loose trio, where all of Jacques Vermeulen, Tyler Paul and Dan du Preez (they’ve been the unchanged starters for the first two rounds of matches) are more renowned for their grunt than stealth or “touch” play about the park.
While it is obviously futile to hark back to a few years ago, a Keegan Daniel or Jacques Botes sort of figure at either of their peaks might come in useful for balance purposes in an ideal world.
Then again, Vermeulen, the 24-year-old Paarl Gym product who moved up the coast some two years ago, was extremely effective over the ball at times against the Blues, suggesting that he may develop into a Marcell Coetzee-type of fetcher, well-served by raw strength and commitment even if not the most whippet-like or low-centre-of-gravity opensiders.
Still will an appealing seven games to look forward to on domestic soil before they go off on their three-match Australasian tour, these rejuvenated Sharks seem set to stay at or near the front of the Super Rugby pack for a considerable period of time ...
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing