Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - High volumes of air in their collective lungs, extraordinary athleticism in a variety of positions … those aren’t recipes alone for Super Rugby title success, but the Sharks having them certainly helps.
The Highlanders were the latest team to learn of their lethal strike potential from all angles and distances on the park on Friday, as Sean Everitt’s charges got their Australasian tour off to a fabulous start with a 42-20 whipping of the hosts in Dunedin.
While they just missed out on adding a bonus point to their harvest as the final try count was 5-3 in their favour, it wouldn’t have fazed them too much as the Durban-based outfit moved to a two-from-two record this season and offered at least a suggestion that a 100 percent record (rare as hen’s teeth for South African sides) on the four-match trek might not be beyond them.
It was the Highlanders’ opening fixture, after a bye in round one, and that hardly aided them against a Sharks combo oozing ball-in-hand ambition, committed linking/support and sometimes blinding pace - especially from broken play, of which there was plenty in a helter-skelter old tussle at Forsyth Barr Stadium.
While playing under a closed roof creates its own steaminess, the KwaZulu-Natalians would still have found the conditions thoroughly more agreeable than those they’ve been doing so much of their mid-summer, pre-season preparation in back home on the sultry coast.
The cornerstone of this triumph was a highly productive period between the 31st and 39th minutes, when the Sharks crossed the whitewash three times to ensure an almost fairy-tale 27-3 lead at the break.
Some sort of shell-shocked response by the Highlanders in the second half was always going to be likely, and the Otago side did eventually edge that specific period by a 17-15 margin, but still not nearly enough to threaten that memorable blitzkrieg ahead of “orange time” in which typically electric Springbok wing Makazole Mapimpi dotted down twice alone.
In confirmation - if it was even needed - of the potency of their back three, lanky fullback Aphelele Fassi cashed in twice himself on Highlanders’ breakdowns while in possession, as they kept pluckily chasing the game, to streak away for a brace of his own in the last eight minutes.
Fassi has more than just pace: a little like his captain and outside centre Lukhanyo Am, he has an astonishing ability to sniff out opportunity or a turnover initiative in the blink of an eye, plus dummying skills that mean he can slice through gaps with almost crazy ease.
While not without the odd, glaring blemish in option-taking, flyhalf Curwin Bosch had an assertive, up-tempo outing as well, a cherry on top being the confidence of his place-kicking from varying ranges: he only missed the last of his eight shots at the posts, a conversion from wide right at the death, and currently sits on a 12/13 record for the first two games of the campaign.
The directness and balance brought to the Sharks back division by brawny Springbok inside centre Andre Esterhuizen should also not be overlooked; a lot of the “fancy stuff” happens off his more bruising forms of industry.
Similarly, the unrelentingly willing Sharks pack contains a broad appetite and vigour that proved too much for their rival unit on Friday.
While their set-pieces aren’t yet things of marked precision - they were pinged under some pressure at each of the first two scrums of the clash, for example - there are desperately few shirkers among them when it comes to pure work-rate in general play.
The entire tight five showed high levels of stamina, making repeated tackles and usually constructive, peripherally-aware carries, while the growth of figures like nippy open-side marauder James Venter and resurgent eighth-man Sikhumbuzo Notshe continues.
Notshe was a frustrating enigma for several years at his previous home of Newlands, but the new commitment to a more “total” brand of rugby in the Sharks camp seems to suit the still only 26-year-old stallion to a tee: he was especially prominent in Mapimpi’s second try with a sharp break and magical, back-of-hand offload to fracture the Highlanders’ defensive shape.
The Sharks shift onward now, with a useful eight-day turnaround, to play the Hurricanes in Wellington, and it will be interesting to see whether Everitt opts to shake up his starting XV for possibly the toughest tour fixture, possibly cocooning certain personnel for a big crack across the “ditch” at two teams from the fragile Australian conference, the Rebels and Reds.
But do you fiddle at this juncture with a winning, clearly buzzing cause?
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing