Sharks have made the adjustment
Gavin Rich - SuperSport.com
Durban - The time for talking about a game that will attract fans back to Kings Park is over for a Sharks franchise that has internalised and acted on the lessons drummed out by Western Province in the domestic final last October.
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It’s never a good idea to take pre-season warm up matches too seriously but nonetheless the Sharks have put some substance in clashes with the Bulls in Polokwane and Racing 92 in Hong Kong to the bones that they worked on during an off-season where coach Robert du Preez made some fundamental changes.
Du Preez might have irritated his bosses a little with his claim before last year’s Currie Cup decider that too much emphasis was being placed in South Africa on aping the more attacking style of the successful New Zealand teams. Du Preez said the only rugby he wanted his team to play was winning rugby and it didn’t matter how ugly it might be. That didn't really fit in with the publicised promise to fans to play crowd pleasing rugby.
Du Preez's words were of course uttered after a league phase of the season where the Sharks had topped the log thanks to the hard work of a pack that afforded them the dominance they required in order to successfully execute a percentage game plan. But it all went pear shaped when the pack was fronted and dominated by WP in the final, and it was clear there was no Plan B for the Sharks and no ability to attack their opponents with scraps of possession. WP coach John Dobson confirmed after that game that once his team got ahead they were content to just kick onto the Sharks as they knew the Durbanites didn't have the attacking wherewithal to hurt them.
The Currie Cup these days should be all about learning from mistakes and building towards Super Rugby, so judging from what Du Preez, who now has the attack minded Dick Muir helping him as a backline/attack consultant, has been doing in the pre-season, last year’s disappointing end was not in vain.
“We realised after the Currie Cup final that we had to change the way we are playing and we can’t just talk about attracting fans by playing entertaining rugby, we have to go out and actually do it,” said Du Preez in an early season interview with the Durban media.
To play a more all-embracing style of rugby requires hard work, and one of the things Du Preez changed was the amount of time during the off-season that players spent doing fitness drills without the ball. Where the ball was absent in previous build-ups to a new Super Rugby season it has now been constantly present, and Du Preez reckons it has reaped dividends.
Skipper Ruan Botha agrees, and has pointed to the twin pillars of conditioning and an improvement in skill levels as key ingredients that have inspired confidence in his squad ahead of a season that kicks off with a difficult fixture against the Lions on 17 February.
“In last year’s Currie Cup we were committed to playing attacking rugby but in the end we were failing to score tries,” said Botha.
“We looked at how we could do things differently during the pre-season to give us a better chance of backing up our aim of scoring tries. Our intent this year is to score tries with a brand of rugby that will fill up Kings Park, so we resorted to a conditioning approach that was totally rugby related. We have done everything with ball in hand, all geared to being rugby fit plus being better equipped to score tries.”
According to Botha, another big catalyst for Sharks improvement this year is the stronger depth in the squad. In some areas the Sharks have a real embarrasment of riches. For instance, the presence of Makazole Mapimpi has meant that Sbu Nkosi, one of the finds of last season, has struggled to find a place in the playing team in the pre-season, with Kobus van Wyk and Mapimpi likely to be the first choices at the start of the competition.
Lwazi Mvovo played fullback in Hong Kong and it looks likely that this will mean no place for Curwin Bosch. Robert du Preez junior has moved back to Durban from Cape Town and is likely to start at flyhalf. Last year that would have meant Bosch moving to the last line of defence but not this year.
A perhaps lesser known addition to the Sharks is scrumhalf Cameron Wright, who left the union a few seasons ago to follow former coach Jake White to France. He has subsequently returned a much better and more mature player and according to those who have seen the Sharks in action, he has been highly impressive.
That should offset the loss of Louis Schreuder to injury in the pre-season and there is also Michael Claassens still present with his experience and ready to offer a mentoring role.
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