Pressure on Sharks to find answers to same old problem

he Cell C Sharks would have returned to Durban after being trampled into the Loftus turf by the rampaging Vodacom Bulls in their Rainbow Cup SA match at the weekend feeling like they were in familiar territory.

If you think back to the match between the two teams in last year’s Vodacom Super Rugby game at Loftus, which was won in similar manner by the Bulls to their 43-9 victory two days ago, there should be a strong sense of de ja vu in a Sharks team that has to face up to the same questions they did then.

The Sharks coach Sean Everitt summed up what most people watching the game would have thought when he spoke at the post-match press conference. In a nutshell, his pack was bullied in the second half, just like they were in the second half of the Unlocked game last October. Most telling was Everitt’s admission that “We didn’t have an answer”.

YOU NEED MONGREL TO COMPETE WITH MONGREL

Of course, you are not going to have an answer when you are competing against a team with mongrel but you haven’t recruited mongrel in the areas where you need it. Put the old vinyl record and let it get stuck so that it repeats the same tune over and over again. That’s the Sharks when it comes to the subject of their forward play, and then there’s the obvious follow up to every big defeat to the Bulls, which is that the big men now have to stand up and prove the critics wrong.

“We battled to stop their maul, and they earned penalty after penalty. So, it was really difficult to stop. I was just disappointed with how we got manhandled in the second half,” said Everitt after the Loftus defeat.

“But yes, the Bulls forwards were outstanding, and like I said, they dominated us physically. We didn’t have an answer.”

Wind the clock back a few months and it will be recalled that after that aforementioned Unlocked game the Sharks pack responded to that humiliation quite magnificently. The aftermath of that game was similar to after this most recent one, the reaction was the same, the post-mortem was the same. Those people with memories who read my Monday story after that game might think I’m a stuck record myself. The forwards need to bounce back and front was the message then too.

A BIG TEST AWAITS

Only this time around they face a much bigger test of their ability to do that than they did last October. The Sharks pack responded to that last mauling by the Bulls by completely dominating the Pumas in Nelspruit the following week.

This week though they are not playing the Pumas, they are playing the Stormers. A Stormers team that is hoping to have their big men back and which would probably feel they’d have done the same to the Sharks at Cape Town Stadium in the opening game that the Bulls did had they not self-destructed with disciplinary infractions.

If the Stormers do have key forwards like JD Schickerling, Marvin Orie and Pieter-Steph du Toit back, it will be the perfect test for the Sharks’ ability to recover from the lessons of Loftus by shaking off their forward woes. It won’t be easy for them though for although the Sharks have won both games the two teams have played since the return to play last September, the Sharks forwards have on each occasion had to dig deep.

It was a mighty defensive effort, particularly in stopping the Stormers’ maul, that won them a closely contested Currie Cup semi-final in January. And in the more recent Cape Town Stadium game the Sharks were helped out of a big hole by the Stormers’ red cards and yet still would have lost had Ruhan Nel just dotted down properly off the last move of the game.

The answers that Everitt and his team might be looking for won’t be easy to find in a week because the Sharks’ biggest problem is tight forward depth. Though they might recall that JJ van der Merscht, who isn’t currently in the match day squad, was part of the solution last October, the first choices might be able to just about keep it together. But Bulls game showed they don’t have the depth they need, particularly not if you consider the upcoming challenge later in the year of playing PRO16 games against northern hemisphere opposition.

COACH NEEDS TO RETHINK BACK ROW CONFIGURATION

One thing that Everitt could do now if he notes that his current pack is always likely to come second to the Bulls and Stormers, is change his loose-forward configuration back to what it was last season – meaning a genuine fetcher at openside flank. The Sharks’ best chance against teams with better tight phase forwards would be to do what the Emirates Lions have to some extent become more adept at doing, which is to make the most of feeding off the turn-over opportunities presented them by the work of, in particular, their excellent flankers MJ Pelser and Vincent Tshituka.

The Sharks don’t currently have players who are as adept at forcing turnovers at the breakdown, although James Venter and Dylan Richardson did it for them last year.

While Richardson is injured, Venter is apparently fit again. And if you ask if that means the Sharks need to drop Springbok captain Siya Kolisi, the answer is no – you might find that his style of play is better suited to being a ball carrying blindside flank or No8 anyway.

Indeed, it was as a No8 that Kolisi played his first game for the Stormers post the 2019 Rugby World Cup win. Unfortunately we didn’t get a chance to see much of Kolisi in the position where he played most of his schoolboy rugby because he was injured early on in a resounding win over the Hurricanes. It might be worth Everitt’s while to follow what Dobson did last February and try Kolisi off the back of the scrum or in the No7 jersey.

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