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Robert du Preez © Gallo Images

Sharks mindset shift will take time

The Sharks’ win over the Sunwolves was enough to give them some confidence ahead of a four-match tour of Australasia, but how far they need to travel before they can be considered the finished article might have been touched on afterwards by the opposition coach, Jamie Joseph.

The Sharks are now off the mark in the competition after their first win, but on the evidence of the first few games of the new season, the current coach, Robert du Preez, faces an uphill battle in his quest to break down a defensive, safety first mindset that was ushered in over a period of years following the departure of John Plumtree.

It would be unfair to suggest that Du Preez took over an adventurous team and turned it into a conservative one. The Sharks have been playing percentage rugby since the end of 2013. Du Preez has spoken about his desire to bring through a multi-phase approach. But while Du Preez was pleased with tries scored against the Sunwolves off multi-phase attack, Joseph gave an honest assessment afterwards that could have been seen as a chilling warning to the hosts.

“For the Sharks, having a battling Brumbies side as your first tour match is a gift from the rugby heavens, one they must cash in on, because it is only going to get tougher,” said Joseph, a former All Black who tasted Super Rugby success as a coach with the Highlanders in 2015.

That it will get tougher in the short-term, with matches against Rebels, Blues and Hurricanes to follow on tour, goes without saying. Joseph might well have been taking a longer-term view though, for even on a day when the Sharks scored 50 points there was an aspect of their game that raises concerns about the challenges that lie ahead not just during their tour, but beyond that.

In a nutshell, while the Sharks have arguably some of the most dangerous South African wings on their books, and in Lukhanyo Am and Andre Esterhuizen a potentially lethal midfield, their game is still too forward based.

Although the architect of the Sharks’ (Natal) reputation for running rugby, Izak van Heerden, died as long ago as 1973, and their first Currie Cup success in 1990 coincided with the emergence of a gargantuan pack, Durbanites do still like to see their team as one that plays running rugby. That might explain why when Jake White guided the Sharks through a relatively successful season in 2014 playing safety first rugby, the fans did not warm to him or the team.

Make no mistake, there have been Sharks teams since 1990 that have had their success driven by the pack. But in 2018 the wisdom of this approach has to be questioned because of the lessons drummed out in last year’s Currie Cup, where the Sharks pack paved the way to the final but then came second to Western Province and left the team looking bereft ideas.

There have been signs of improvement to the Sharks’ forward play in recent weeks, but with respect to the Waratahs and Sunwolves, they haven’t played a pack that should test them since they were beaten by the Lions in the first week.

What is going to happen when they start playing teams with better packs? Du Preez is aware of how difficult that challenge could be, and he did make changes to the off-season preparation geared towards making the Sharks a more lethal and all-embracing (meaning not just forwards and abrasive attrition) attacking force.

Difficult though it is to win in Australia and New Zealand, he might also be secretly pleased he is away from Durban at this point of the late summer when humidity turns every game into a sweat soaked arm-wrestle. Even Plumtree used to instruct his team to play conservatively in the early parts of the season when the ball was slippery.

But if the Sharks are going to recover the status they enjoyed as the off-load kings of South African rugby towards the end of Plumtree’s last full season in charge (2012), patience will be necessary. Turning around a mind-set that is inculcated over months and seasons does not happen quickly and there is a reason why the one local team that is consistently successful playing an all-embracing, continuous game is the Lions.

The Lions have been on the same path really for the past five or six years. The rest of the teams have experienced too many identity changes and changes to coaching personnel and playing style has stood in the way of evolution.

The extent to which Du Preez wants to evolve his team into one that plays an all-embracing attacking game is something only time will tell. The off-season playing personnel purchases suggest he does, but it would seem almost counter-intuitive if you look at the abrasive, attritional rugby he played and his sons play.

What could be gauged though by the extra decibels injected into the throaty roars that greeted the more spectacular tries scored against the Sunwolves is what the Kings Park faithful would like to see. And although it has to be noted that both the Du Preez loose-forward twins have been missing, now might not be a good time for the Sharks to vest too much in forward dominance.


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