Best tacticians still hold sway

The Brumbies, Highlanders and Sharks have got it right with regard to their tactics and deserve to be in the top bracket after three rounds, writes JON CARDINELLI.

The press conference that followed the South African derby at Newlands on Saturday said much for the mindset of the respective teams. The Sharks weren’t happy with an ugly win. The Stormers weren’t terribly disappointed despite an ill-disciplined and largely rudderless showing at home.

Gary Gold said that his team needs to improve on attack in the coming rounds. He did commend the Sharks for the quality of their tactical kicking and defence. The temperament shown by the Sharks during the latter stages at Newlands also went a long way towards securing the result.

Robbie Fleck gave the Sharks' defence credit, but questioned the legality of their breakdown efforts. Fleck admitted that the Sharks beat the Stormers in the air, and that the visitors’ tactical kicking was superior to that of the hosts.

What was interesting to note was Fleck’s attitude towards the Sharks’ tactics. It was almost as if the Stormers coach couldn’t believe that a team would favour a strategy that relies on rabid physicality at the collisions and breakdowns, contestable high kicks, and a rock solid defence.

‘We’re on a different path,’ Fleck said later at the press conference. The intimation was that the Stormers will look to play a more attacking brand of rugby than the dour Sharks in the months to come. Fleck talked up the fact that the Stormers had put together a number of phases of play in the derby at Newlands.

Fleck thought little of the fact that the Stormers were outscored by two tries to one by a less exciting Sharks team, or that at this stage of the tournament, a total of seven teams have scored more tries than the Stormers. 

One wonders how long the Stormers will continue down their current path. While it’s true that they have a number of youngsters in their squad, the fact is that they have a great draw in 2016 and they need to take advantage. In 2017, their draw will be significantly tougher when they front up to the five New Zealand franchises.

The point was alluded to by Gold. The Sharks have been drawn in the same conference as the Lions and Jaguares, and will face all of the New Zealand teams in 2016. Not for the first time this year, Gold questioned the decisions taken by Sanzaar to structure the tournament in a way that forces one half of the South African teams to play the Kiwis and pits the other half against the Australians.

Gold refused to entertain any talk of his side as favourites to top the South African group, despite the fact that they are the only side in that section that is undefeated after three games. Gold said that the tournament structure would take its toll. He suggested that 2017 may be the year to talk of contesting for a title.

Gold said you had to work with what you were given. And he’s right. The new format is absurd, but Sanzaar is unlikely to come to its senses any time soon. Best to get on with it, and plan accordingly.

With that in mind, one wonders where the Stormers are going with their current brand. After Saturday’s match, Fleck said he was happy with the breakdown performance by the Stormers, even though they were turned over several times by the more accurate Sharks contingent.

Fleck lamented the Sharks' superiority with the boot and in the air. He followed up these comments by stating that the Brumbies would be even stronger in these departments when they visited Newlands in round four.

The Stormers lost by 20 points to the Brumbies in the qualifying playoff at Newlands last year. In that fixture, the Brumbies bossed the collisions and players like David Pocock thrived at the breakdown. The Australians’ kicking game put the Stormers under pressure. The Brumbies generated turnovers and then converted counter-attacking opportunities into points.

The bad news for the Stormers is that the current Brumbies side is a more polished version of the 2015 outfit. This season, the Brumbies have stuck to their game plan. They have worked hard on defence and at the breakdown. Their kicking game has put the opposition under pressure.

This is the basis of the Brumbies' game, and yet, after three rounds, they’ve scored more points (115) and tries (15) than all but one other side.

The Chiefs are the other side to have scored 15 tries. That stat is skewed when one considers that the Waikato team scored seven tries against the hapless Kings this past Saturday.

While the Highlanders are second to the Chiefs in the New Zealand conference, their recent performance against the Lions suggests they will claim top spot before long. In 2015, the champion Highlanders side favoured an approach that focused on breakdown turnovers and contestable kicks. This past Saturday, the Highlanders succeeded in winning those turnovers and capitalising on their counter-attacking opportunities.

It is something that all teams with title aspirations should bear in mind. There is room to play an attractive brand of rugby in this competition, but only on the back of a strong kicking and defensive performance.

Photo: Carl Fourie/Gallo Images

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