During the run-in towards the Currie Cup final last year, Sharks coach Robert du Preez raised eyebrows when he said that the Sharks would not follow the sheep in world rugby by trying to emulate the Kiwi style of play.
At the time, Du Preez said: “There are obviously a lot of things the New Zealanders do right but we must develop a South African style of rugby, one that appreciates how the All Blacks play but also takes into consideration the strengths of our players.”
A match-winning style of play did not quite materialise for the Sharks and they were well beaten by Western Province in the Durban final. And that is when Du Preez and a coaching staff that now has the services of the cavalier Dick Muir began to change the Sharks’ approach to the game.
The lesson learned from the Currie Cup final, according to Du Preez was that the Sharks’ ability to attack was seriously hampered by the players’ inability or lack of desire to offload in the tackle, rather than thunder into the defence and collapse to the ground for yet another ball-slowing ruck.
No quick-ball for the team in possession means less danger for the defence, which can organise itself while the ruck is on the go.
So the Sharks tried a new, innovative way of training in preseason. Every exercise was done with ball in hand and each player had to learn to be aware of support play, take the blinkers off, and get the ball to a player in a better position.
The message to both forwards and backs was to avoid going to ground where possible. However, Du Preez emphasised that the Sharks were not to adopt a Sevens approach – he understood that attacking ball requires forward forays to engender momentum and front-foot ball for the scrumhalf. He also made it clear that the pack can go forward through passing interchanges between the forwards as much as physical charges.
In short, the Sharks forwards have been encouraged to maintain the traditions of typical South African forward physicality but to keep their minds open to passing instead of simply crashing to the ground.
It has taken adversity overseas for the Sharks’ enterprising style of play to kick in. The players did not initially back themselves to “have a lash” as Dick Muir put it, but after the horrible defeat to the Rebels, when the Sharks’ morale was dealt a blow, the players digested the instruction to kick their nerves into touch and play as they have trained since November.
They found their groove in New Zealand, scoring 10 tries and 100 points in thrashing the Blues and coming within two points of beating the Hurricanes in a high-scoring match.
“This is the way the Boks should play — a highly physical pack that now is aware of the value of offloading instead of taking contact, and a backline that attacks with verve and keeps the ball alive through the offload,” Nick Mallett said on TV.
A case in point is the evolution of blockbusting centre Andre Esterhuizen. He was a typical basher but now is creating tries more often than he is scoring them. “It feels extremely good to get the ball away to players that can run into the gap, and then seeing the try eventuate,” he says. “A lot of players are enjoying the satisfaction of setting up tries rather than scoring them.”
The Sharks have morphed their game into a hybrid of the New Zealand way and traditional SA strengths. Mallett is right – this is the type of game Rassie Erasmus should implement with the Boks.