If you spoke to the Cell C Sharks brains-trust after last year’s Carling Currie Cup semifinal at Newlands what would have come through crystal clear was that they travelled to Cape Town 100 percent sure of what to expect from their opponents.
To be fair, it didn’t require rugby rocket science from the Sharks coaches and players to figure out what Western Province, who will be trading in the blue and white hoops for their DHL Stormers jerseys for Saturday’s Rainbow Cup opener, were going to do. Even by the admission of Stormers coach John Dobson, the rugby his team played last year was predictable and “ugly”.
They were what they refer to in the trade as a set piece team, with everything revolving around first-phase dominance, meaning scrums and lineouts, and the Cape team’s fearsome driving maul operating off that platform. The backs hardly ever got the ball.
It was an approach reminiscent in some ways of the Blue Bulls in the early days of Heyneke Meyer’s tenure as coach at the Pretoria union. Only the Bulls tended to be more efficient than the Stormers were on some of their key days at the office in South Africa’s return to phase season. Knowing what an opponent is doing is one thing, stopping them is another, or so the saying goes, but the Stormers did conspire against themselves in both their home league defeat against the Bulls and in the semifinal against the Sharks.
To be fair, the game the Sharks played to beat WP in January wasn’t exactly beautiful either. Indeed, it was darn ugly, and their strict adherence to a game-plan heavily accented on kicking was as one-dimensional, maybe even more so, than their opponents. Sharks coach Sean Everitt later argued that it was the plan to fit that particular opponent, and as that approach accounted for both WP away and then took the Bulls to extra time in an away final, perhaps it was justified.
But just a few months later much has changed at both franchises, and you might fancy that Everitt will be less likely to take poison on the Stormers throwing everything into one basket. The Stormers did show a pleasing willingness to use their backs in the Kick Off 2021 preparation phase.
Of course, there was nothing riding on those games, it was all about experimentation, so it was easy. Just as it was easy for the Sharks to eschew the contestable kicking game for a more ball-in-hand-orientated game-plan. But for both teams it worked. Not only that, they would have noted the enthusiasm of their fans towards the switch. Professional rugby is after all supposed to be entertainment.
For both coaches there are big questions to ponder going into Saturday’s match in relation to what the opposition might do. For Dobson, there must be at least part of him that thinks that seeing the Sharks’ game-plan worked for them at Newlands, it would surely make sense for the Durbanites to retain the same for this Cape Town Stadium clash.
But for Everitt the head scratching might be of a more serious nature – the Cape team did attain forward dominance last time, they only lost because they shot themselves in both feet with their high error-rate and lack of imagination. If the Stormers do add more to their game, surely they will be more formidable opponents and it will pose a challenge less easy to overcome?
At the same time, he knows where the Stormers’ main strength lies. They have a world class front row. The recruitment of Marvin Orie from the Lions and the probable return of Pieter-Steph du Toit from his long-term injury absence will improve the Stormers’ lineout. The arrival of Siya Kolisi hasn’t completely erased the question mark over the Sharks’ own lack of options at lineout time.
So it would seem the height of folly for Dobson to move too far away from his team’s acknowledged strengths. Particularly against a team that has shown great ability to pounce on any crumbs offered in broken play and turn them into maximum points. And from any position on the field.
The likelihood is that there will be a bit of both – some of the old mixed in with the new – and according to the Sharks’ Springbok tighthead prop, Thomas du Toit, that is what the Sharks are preparing for.
“The Stormers have had good game plans coming through in the last few games they have played, and we are kind of anticipating both, a bit of a mix,” said Du Toit.
“They are never shy to employ their maul and to go all out in the set piece battle, but obviously they do have a different aspect of their game now. You can see they are playing more than they were. So we have prepped to face both challenges.”