Bismarck du Plessis was the standout player for the Sharks in what was a disappointing match in Toulon, writes MARK KEOHANE.
The Toulon-Sharks match, in concept, offered so much. In reality it produced so little.
The bragging rights go to the Sharks. They won the match 12-10. But it really was a turgid 80 minutes, played in awful conditions, in front of a passionless home crowd whose voice was as expressive as the Sharks backline attack.
It all seemed like a match after the fact or a match a few days before the fact. I got the feeling I was watching a practise contact session, with the Sharks especially focused on specific aspects of their play in preparation of Vodacom Super Rugby.
The Sharks, clearly, were not giving any indication to the opposition of how different a team (from Jake White) they will be under Gary Gold. This was all about winning a game on defence, without showing anything on attack.
The conditions allowed for this approach and the Sharks rightly will feel they were the beneficiaries of a very good contact session.
Toulon were the big losers on the night – again on every level. Coach Bernard Laporte selected a side fielding six first-team regulars, which showed up the depth of the European and French club champions.
These types of matches never give an indication of who sits where because of the timing of the fixture and because of the respective individual and team motivation. This wasn’t Toulon, as European champions, against the Sharks, as Super Rugby contenders.
Toulon played as Toulon in name only. Half the team wasn’t there and those who were there certainly didn’t look like they wanted to be out there in the mud and rain.
Toulon’s pride, especially that of the club owner, would have taken a beating. Don’t doubt that.
Laporte picked a team he assumed good enough to win. The approach was also very much akin to a practice contact session. Toulon were awarded numerous penalties that were within kicking distance and turned down every one until the final play of the game. The kick, to win the game, was always going to be more missing than hitting because of the atrocious weather conditions.
The Sharks were clinical in converting kickable penalties into points. They got four chances and scored 12 match-winning points.
What the game showed again was the absolute brutal presence of Bismarck du Plessis at the breakdown and the continued evolution of Marcell Coetzee as a world-class loose forward.
Du Plessis was colossal in the 40 minutes he played and Toulon only featured at the breakdown in the last 25 minutes by way of the introduction of their breakdown specialist Stefon Armitage, who is easily the best in France.
The second-row pairing of Mouritz Botha and Pieter-Steph du Toit has the potential to be among the most influential in Super Rugby, but they will have to be managed carefully to make it through the entire competition.
The Sharks were brutal in the collisions, which is the Sharks way, and very good in the set piece. But they were not prepared to show anything on attack and they certainly were not giving any indication of how they will play in the tournament proper.
There has been talk of the Sharks wanting to be an attacking force in this year’s competition and there has also been talk of more balance in their play. There has been a lot of talk coming from within the Sharks ranks, but the real talk will have to come on the field during the competition because there was no attack in Toulon.
Du Plessis and Coetzee, by way of a start to 2015, were outstanding and the big winners were the new lock combination of Botha and Du Toit.
Du Plessis also showed why he would command among the biggest salaries with a move to French club rugby, while the likes of Coetzee and Du Toit would also revel in the Top 14.
Don’t be surprised to see them all playing their domestic rugby in France post the World Cup. It was as much a trial to their increasing market value, as it was a contact hit out for the Sharks.
Du Plessis, though, was the biggest winner on a night when rugby – courtesy of weather and motivation – was never going to be the winner.
Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images