Improving Sharks fixing to assume Lions’ mantle
Johannesburg - It’s probably a little daft to make a suggestion like this when they’ve just lost a game that was theirs to lose, but the Sharks are emerging as the team to take over from the Lions as the spearhead of South Africa’s Super Rugby challenge.
As statements go, it’s bold to the point of being counterintuitive, especially when you consider that the Sharks - who led 37-28 with five minutes remaining in their game against the Hurricanes on Friday, but still lost - have now lost four of their seven matches this season.
Contrast that with the Lions, the lone team flying the country’s flag in Super Rugby by making the last two finals. But a general looseness - which seems to have lost them their ability to think, construct games, defend or close out matches - has descended upon the Lions since Johan Ackermann’s departure for the UK last year.
Simply, the Lions are starting to look like a team there for the taking; a team that could have been demoralised by getting to two finals and losing them, as opposed to enthused by being that close in the first place.
A quick inventory of the other three franchises in Super Rugby suggests the Sharks are best placed to replace them. As well-coached as they are, the Bulls have only just embarked on their adventure to transform how they play and are missing genuine quality in a few areas, while there’s a strange insecurity about the Stormers that shows itself in inconsistent results.
If the Sharks are smart enough, they will read their defeat to the Hurricanes as a sign that they are getting close to consistently beating New Zealand sides.
If anything, the Sharks have already shown an inclination to usurp the Lions by being the one South African side to come close to beating them in Super Rugby. A last-minute Ruan Combrinck penalty from the parking lot last year denied them a victory over the Lions, while a late ruck penalty won by Hacjivah Dayimani meant they fell short again in their opening game this season.
The thing to heed about the Sharks’ credentials as a team on the up is that their blend of brutal physicality and newfound offloading intent - and accuracy - troubles both the Lions and the New Zealand sides.
Add to that a playing staff crammed with rejuvenated, improving and generally underrated players, and you have a team warming to their task.
Beast Mtawarira may have played more than 130 Super Rugby games and 98 Tests for South Africa, but his choking back the tears in the aftermath of the 'Canes defeat suggested he’s playing with the enthusiasm of a youngster playing in the backyard again.
The biggest improvers have to be flanker Jean-Luc du Preez and centre Andre Esterhuizen. Du Preez has always been a human wrecking ball, and he has added game sense and off-loading skill to just wanting to hurt people.
Esterhuizen, all 1.94m and 110kg of him, has always screamed flank playing in midfield, but his line-breaks, off-loads and general distribution suggest he is less of a blunt object than he has been in recent years.
Prop Thomas du Toit, he of the over-documented switch to tighthead, hasn’t exactly killed the debate on the success of the move, but he wins some and loses some, and makes a nuisance of himself in the carry.
It’s a big statement to make, but Lukhanyo Am gives off the same underrated vibe as former All Black Conrad Smith did. He may not go in for the flashy stuff, but his x-ray vision gets him to the right place at the right time, and he almost always does the right thing once he’s there.
Robert du Preez junior may not be anyone’s idea of an attacking flyhalf, but he’s one of those flyhalves who don’t mind leading a team the ugly way by kicking all his goals, making his tackles and poking his head into the odd ruck.
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