Durban - Sharks coach Robert du Preez reckons the bye week has come at just the right time for a team that he feels needs to take stock and do some hard thinking and it is a view that is hard to disagree with.
According to the supersport.com website, after the first two games, following good wins over the Sunwolves away and the Blues at home, the Sharks were in a happy space and the signs were encouraging that they were set to draw fans back to boost the numbers at Kings Park.
However, in the space of 160 minutes of rugby that has changed, with the home loss to the Stormers being followed by this past weekend’s heavy away (37-14) loss to the Bulls.
Of course, the Sharks are just the latest local team to have been comprehensively thumped by the Bulls, who are fast re-establishing themselves as South Africa’s primary Super Rugby team. They’ve played three derbies, two at home and won away, and the closest anyone has come to them is 18 points.
It is also true that a late penalty and a try in the dying minutes of the game placed a gloss on the end margin that wasn’t always likely when the Sharks were attacking and were down by 13 points from around the 60th minute through to the 70th.
On a few occasions they came close to scoring a try that would have made it a tight finish, something that seemed unlikely when the Bulls led 19-0 at half-time. While the Bulls did finish strongly in the last five minutes, the Sharks did at least answer some of the questions about their conditioning before that. Until the last Bulls flurry, it looked like being the second week in a row where the Sharks would give the lie to the theory that they are just a first half team.
Indeed, they are a long way from being a first half team at present, as a 13-3 deficit at the halfway point against the Stormers and now a 19 point margin against the Bulls will testify. In both matches they came roaring out of the blocks at the start of the second half and scored almost immediately. The key for them is to find a way to inject that kind of intensity into a much longer period of time, and preferably near the start of the game.
They did start strongly against the Blues two weeks ago, and effectively won that match in the first half. But there was a big difference between the Blues game and the two that have followed it, one that the Sharks coach readily acknowledges.
"When you don't get traction up front, you are always going to be playing catch-up rugby,” said Du Preez.
And that is really it in a nutshell. When they played the Stormers they played against the first really decent pack they had faced this season, and then came the Bulls, who have now sorted out their old scrumming woes and as a result boast a forward unit that is much closer resemblance to the Bulls teams that dominated at the turn of the last decade.
For a while now it has looked as if the Sharks have been bereft of a plan and composure when they are fronted at forward, and that was the case over the last two weeks. While there is a lot of emphasis placed on first phase dominance by the Sharks, there are times when the work ethic of their pack can be questioned.
Perhaps, as they search for a response after coming back from their bye when they face the Rebels on March 23, they should take a leaf out of the book of the other Gauteng team playing Super Rugby, the Lions. The conference champions were criticised last week for their poor performance against the Bulls, and the forwards in particular got it in the neck.
However, the Lions big men answered the critics by making a firm statement against the Jaguares. Although it wasn’t the Jaguares’ best team or best pack - they clearly have targeted the Stormers game in Cape Town on Friday as the one they need to win - the message drummed out by the Lions pack was emphatic, and it was driven by a combination of energy and controlled aggression that Du Preez wished for in vain over the past two weekends.
"I think the plan was solid, the last two weeks we had very good training weeks, but when you come up against a side like the Bulls that is really clinical in their execution and you cannot get going, it is always going to be difficult,” he said.
"It is a physical battle, the derbies are unbelievably physical, and the team that is the most aggressive is going to come out on top. We have been beaten up for two weeks in a row now.”
It would be naive though for Du Preez to think he doesn’t need to make a few strategy and tactical adjustments too, and if winning rugby was all about just beating up the opposition and gaining physical dominance then you wouldn’t need a coach. There has to be more to it than that, but with the Sharks too often it appears there is one bottom line and they are lost if they don’t attain it.
While it is true that the Sharks were, as Du Preez said, simply dismantled in the opening 20 minutes, it also seemed that they were out-thought and out-coached on the day, as indeed they were in both games last season, when John Mitchell was the Bulls coach and laying the first bricks in the foundation for what the Pretoria team is coming now.
Of course Saturday was not the first time this season that the Bulls have done that to a fellow South African team, and the Sharks effectively have three weeks to work on what they have learned before they get a chance to gain revenge. They host the Bulls in what should be an appetising return derby in Durban the week after the Rebels game (March 30).
It's certainly not crisis time for the Sharks and if they win those two games they will still be well placed in the conference. However, they are home games, and as Du Preez has said before, you can't lose home games and expect to compete for silverware. They've already dropped a home game to the Stormers and simply can't afford to lose another derby. First though comes the Rebels, and the best Australian team, on the early evidence, could be a tough side to beat.