Gavin Rich - SuperSport.com
Durban - Every week in Super Rugby is a big one and it has become a cliché to point it out, but Sharks coach Robert du Preez and his players won’t be hiding from the fact that this one is bigger than most.
According to supersport.com, the Sharks were badly hurt by the big defeat they suffered to the Bulls at Loftus in their match before the bye week.
None of the players spoken to last week made any attempt to hide from the fact that they were hurting. But now comes an opportunity, just three weeks later as it turns out, to avenge that loss as the Bulls prepare to come to Kings Park for Saturday’s return fixture.
It will be a massive game not only in terms of the Sharks wanting to show that they have redressed what went wrong at Loftus, but also in terms of the battle for supremacy in the South African conference. For as it turns out the Bulls, after looking the team to beat among the local sides, suffered a severe setback in their big defeat to the Chiefs at the weekend.
A 50-pointer is always a massive blow to the psychology and confidence, and it is even more so when that loss is suffered at home. Conversely the Sharks have now come through their period of crisis following a morale-boosting win over the Rebels.
It wasn’t pretty, and the Sharks appeared to revert to their most direct, route one approach against the Australians.
But as Du Preez said afterwards, it was the result that was all important.
“Obviously this was all about getting the result, getting the campaign back on track,” said Du Preez.
“It was a tough week for us after the Bulls, and then to go into the bye at that point. But the guys dug deep, there was a lot of introspection, and I was really pleased with the win. It was a good response from the players, particularly in the second half. In the first half I thought we were a little tentative, but the second half was good.”
Du Preez was rightly particularly pleased with the commitment and character shown in the 10 minute period after half-time when the Rebels, having picked up a bit of momentum just before the break, really dominated territory and did everything but score.
“That was brilliant, the guys showed a lot of character there,” said the coach.
When asked about the Bulls game Du Preez set the tone for the pre-match discourse when, after being told that his men were facing the Bulls, he said “they will be facing us”.
They will indeed, but what will be interesting to see is what the Sharks might learn from watching the video of the Chiefs’ big win in Pretoria.
A lot that went wrong for the Bulls was out wide, and in some ways the problems the Bulls experienced were similar to the defensive problems wrought by having talented but inexperienced wings in position when the Springboks first started out under Rassie Erasmus.
As good as Rosko Specman and company have been for the Bulls on attack this season, the Chiefs game showed something that perhaps we never saw before because of the Bulls’ physical dominance in the three South African derbies that they won. Forced to defend in their own half, the Bulls back three was vulnerable and it played a big role in the extent of the team’s defeat.
Warrick Gelant is expected to be back in the Bulls’ last line of defence in Durban, but in S'bu Nkosi and Makazole Mapimpi the Sharks have the men out wide to exploit potential vulnerabilities in the Bulls’ defensive make-up, provided their attack sets them up properly.
That though is the million dollar question, for as dominant as the Sharks were physically against the Rebels, there wasn’t too much evidence of the new attack variations promised in the early season. As Du Preez said, his team’s strength is the ability to keep the ball through multiple phases, which against the Rebels was carried out in a very direct manner.
If the Sharks are fronted at forward by the Bulls like they were in their last home game against the Stormers, a bit of subtleness out wide, with Lukhanyo Am being a potential key to creating opportunities for the men outside him, might come in handy. And Du Preez does seem sure of one thing when it comes to his wide players, he thinks he has a gem in Mapimpi.
“The work-rate of Mapimpi was outstanding, I reckon he must be the No 1 wing in the country right now,” said Du Preez.
Mapimpi was good, and though Louis Schreuder was excellent at scrumhalf and deserved his man-of-the-match award, the speedy former Southern Kings flyer must have come close. His pace really troubled the Rebels, not only when he had the ball in hand - the disallowed try was a spectacular effort - but particularly when he was chasing the ball.
Fullback Aphelele Fassi has a lot of potential but he made mistakes against the Rebels that suggest he may still have quite a bit of learning to do, but the Sharks do have the material to hurt the Bulls provided the Durbanites have attacking intent and assuming the Bulls might be carrying a bit of psychological hangover from the Chiefs game.
Du Preez though won’t be expecting the Bulls to be off their game in Durban. He will be preparing his charges to expect the exact opposite.
“The Bulls got quite a big hiding so there will definitely be a backlash and we will be expecting it because they are a proud team,” he said.
So let’s say it again - it’s going to be a big week, for both teams.
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