Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Perhaps the best tribute to the Sharks this season, under the charge of their first-time head coach Sean Everitt, is more than just the tally of Super Rugby matches they’re winning ... it’s how comfortably they’ve been clinching them, virtually every time.
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When the cruel suspension of activity came due to the coronavirus crisis a few weeks ago, the KwaZulu-Natalians headed both the overall table and, with extra breathing space, the SA conference following a roaring, six-out-of-seven start to the competition.
One match shy of the midway mark for them in ordinary season when the plug was pulled indefinitely, they were already looking racing certainties for knockout-phase qualification (bear in mind that six wins somehow got the Highlanders through the door, in eighth, last season) and it seemed more a question of whether they could go on to top the table at the finish or at very least be among the elite two or three.
Several signs pointed to them lasting the pace, in the increasingly unlikely event that the competition resumes, including the fact that they’d already completed their main, four-match Australasian tour with only one setback to show from it.
But another has been the pulsating manner, for the most part, in which they have gone about engineering their triumphs: reflected in the fact that every single one has been by a margin of at least eight points (so more than one converted try) and more often a greater margin than that.
Tries have pleasingly rained in their favour as well: between the opening match (Bulls) and last before the cut (Stormers), where they “only” managed a brace of dot-downs in victory each time, they went through a five-game spell where they posted 21 tries, and most commonly four or five a game.
It was evidence, under Everitt’s still-rookie stewardship, of how multi-dimensional, appetite-laden and up-tempo they have been this year ... possibly beyond the wildest dreams, upfront, of many of their long-suffering supporters.
Perhaps not without significance, in the one match where the Sharks went in without either of their first-choice props, Ox Nche and Thomas du Toit, as starters (Boeta Chamberlain also deputised for an unavailable Curwin Bosch at pivot) they suffered their lone reverse so far - to the Hurricanes, in the midst of their overseas safari.
Especially pleasing has been the “total rugby” ethic instilled by the mastermind and his assistants, with players from most berths relishing involvement in hand-to-hand play - even those officially deployed in the more traditional “grunt” departments - and the Sharks showing a special desire to strike from deep, often from cleverly-worked turnovers or broken play.
That template has seen skilled athletes like fullback Aphelele Fassi and resurgent, marauding No 8 Sikhumbuzo Notshe come especially frequently into their own; the pair count among the premier, most constructive performers tournament-wide at this bend in the uncertain 2020 road.
As reported earlier on Sport24, the strong emphasis on youth in the ranks has aided the general vibrancy of their performances: the average age of Everitt’s starting XV has been around 24 and a half, suggesting even brighter fortunes ahead if - and this is always a challenge for South African franchises - they can keep the nucleus of this squad together for two or three seasons to come.
There has clearly been rosy, comprehensive buy-in from the squad around Everitt’s methods, and cerebral Springbok midfielder Lukhanyo Am appears to have been an astute choice as current captain.
What price the Sharks having the sort of “blowout” from a period of ascendancy that is not, after all, uncommon in a competition renowned for teams peaking and dipping quite noticeably at different times along the arduous journey toward the knockouts?
That may only become the subject of relatively low-value conjecture, if we see no further action this season.
All we know is that harmony and desire appear to run deep in the 2020 group, who to this point have shown none of the violent inconsistency that marked the last season under Robert du Preez’s charge, when the side from Kings Park ended sixth overall and as losing quarter-finalists.
Everitt’s rating: 8/10
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