Sharks blend power with passing

Mike Greenaway

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.

- Mike Greenaway

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  • humblepie

    The Sharks showed encouraging signs of modernising their game against the Hurricanes. I would love to see them evolve even further. I hope to be proven wrong that coach Du Preez is in his heart a traditionalist and will find it tough to permanently do away with old habits. He had nothing to lose against the Hurricanes as the Sharks were heavy underdogs. It will be more challenging to maintain this approach in high stake home and derby games. Coaches tend to fall back in their comfort zones at pressure games. Toetie regularly flip-flopped his approach and confused all his players in the process.
    The Sharks hope should be firmly on Dick Muir. He has a better understanding of the modern game. I suspect that the Muir-Du Preez working relationship can be tense at times as they have different phylosophies of how the game should be played.

  • humblepie

    Believe systems of traditional coaches:
    They regularly use old truths (or cliches depending which side of the fence you are) such as:
    1. You need an exit plan (code for kick the ball)
    2. Play in the right areas of the field
    3. You have to earn the right to go wide
    4. A big players is always a better player than a smaller player regardless of skills (McKensey, the All Black full back will for instance not be good enough for selection in most high school teams in Pretoria)
    5. Avoid making mistakes (as opposed to encouragement to take risks or innovate). Identify all mistakes in post mortems, make sure that players are reprimanded and the media informed of the silly mistakes that costed us the game.
    6. Leave all the thinking for the coaching staff. We dont want thinking players. Just do what you were told to do
    7. Statistics is gospel. (as opposed to modern coaches that understands the flaws of garbage-in garbage-out)
    8. Coaching means programming the players how to play. No deviation is tolerated.

  • Chris Mouton

    I truly hope that the Sharks will keep playing the way they are playing, doesn’t matter who they play. Their backline has the power and the pace to blow many teams out of the water. Offloading rugby and passing to players in space is the crux to modern rugby. Realising that the ball is quicker than the man. Realising when to slow it down and when to play percentage rugby. I know it’s not easy, but the players need to learn how to make better decisions.

  • Dr Hoffman

    “sharks-blend-power-passing” haha remind where they are on the log again, after all the hype after their amazingly awesome LOSS I can only assume that they are 25 points clear on the top! Nope, they are in 8th, I dont think their has ever been so many articles and hype about a team sitting in 8th, especially after a loss against a team with no B Barret. Only the SA media…

  • Dean

    I think the artical is about the improved game the sharks are working on, and not about where they are on the log. Granted they did lose to the canes, but 10 tries and 100 points in NZ isn’t something to scoff at. Why would you want to try and bad mouth a S.A side that are really working on improving their game.

  • John Comyn

    let me say upfront – I am no fan of The Sharks. However I am hoping they can can continue with the way they are playing and get better as the season goes on. I have the greatest respect for Dick Muir both as a player back in the day as well as a coach when he was trying a different approach but could not get anyone to buy into the expansive game. You could say he was ahead of his time. Realistically the Sharks and Lions are the only sides that have a chance of going into the play-off stage and hopefully winning.

  • Gerhard

    Dick Muir has been a great player and also coach after his rugby career.Both Dick Muir and Brendan Venter are coaches that innovates new technique and have the ability to come up with new ideas which is great as most of our coaches seems to be followers of overseas teams.The other big concern for me is that our defence coaches seems to all be extremely conservative with our teams waiting in a defence line for the attaching players and this in my view has been one of the main reasons why our teams have not been able to won titles like the All Blacks.This type of defence gives the other teams so much opportunity to gain field position and to put us under pressure with phase play after phase play.This type of defence also makes it easy to plan attacks and if one would do research I am sure you will find that this type of defence results in the most loss of field possession and put your team on the back foot.Most overseas teams use the rush defence which puts the attacking team under pressure and force mistakes.But I guess our defence coaches are not comfortable with the rush defence because it is either to complicated for them or has to much risk according to them.i however believe our players would be better suited for the rush defence. . .

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