Individual errors cost the Sharks a shot at the Super Rugby title, not a territory-driven game plan, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Much has been said about the Crusaders' 38-point effort on Saturday, and the fact that they scored five tries in a match where tries did not matter. Not enough credit went to the Crusaders for performing the basics so brilliantly.
They defended aggressively. They secured possession on their own feed, and competed strongly when the opposition had the ball at the set pieces and breakdowns.
Their kickers ensured that the majority of the game was played down in opposition territory. Their kickers often hoisted the ball high, knowing that their chasers would make it difficult for the opposition fullback and wingers to field the ball cleanly.
In many respects, the Crusaders are similar to the Sharks in their approach. Where the Cantabrians are different, however, is that they usually make inroads after forcing the turnover.
Following a turnover, the Crusaders have the decision-makers and finishers to ensure points are scored at the other end of the park. Their skill comes to the fore in these situations, and when they complete a spectacular try, it fuels the myth that they are more adventurous than their South African counterparts. Many forget that their free-running and at times breathtaking exploits are often from turnover ball.
The Sharks fell short this past Saturday, but not because of their game plan. White prepared his charges for this battle. The instructions were simple: Boss the set pieces, win the breakdowns and collisions, and use those platforms to gain the necessary ground. Defend physically and force the Crusaders to make the mistakes.
But once you’ve forced the turnover, then it’s down to you as a player to make that chance count. It’s up to you to take the right option and turn an opportunity into points.
It’s a distinction so many South African rugby fans fail to make. There wouldn’t be any accusations of ‘boring rugby’ if the Sharks had used their turnover ball to better effect in 2014 and finished with more precision. If they had used the self-same game plan and scored more tries, you wouldn’t have heard a peep of complaint.
I say this with confidence, because it’s exactly what’s happened with regards to the public’s attitude towards Heyneke Meyer and the Boks.
Meyer’s team scored more tries in 2013 than they did in 2012, despite not changing their game plan or mindset. What improved in 2013 was the players’ decision-making and ability to finish. They made their turnover ball count.
The Sharks are on the right track, but they will lament their poor finishing over the course of the 2014 season. They had a few opportunities to score against the Crusaders in the semi-final, rare instances where players showed the vision to use turnover ball wisely.
Individuals cost the Sharks in Christchurch, rather than the game plan itself. White will lament the number of times his kickers failed to find touch when the Sharks had won a penalty. He will be livid with his players for kicking straight down the Crusaders' throats. It’s not that the Sharks kicked too much, it’s that they kicked so aimlessly.
History shows us that the most balanced teams win championships. The Bulls side of 2007 looked to dominate up front and played for territory, but they also boasted the best try-scoring record during the league stage. Since 2011, the winner of Super Rugby has been the side that has struck the best balance between defence and attack. They have known when to kick and when to run.
White should not dispense with the Sharks’ current game plan. What he does need to do in the coming months is to decide whether he has the personnel to implement it correctly.
It was White who backed Cobus Reinach to start at scrumhalf in the semi-final, this despite the fact that Reinach has shown in recent weeks that he does not have the skills to play a more tactical game. Charl McLeod was the better option, although not by much. The Sharks need to find a No 9 in the Fourie du Preez mould.
The Sharks’ accuracy and decision-making at key moments cost them in 2014. They have the game plan to be a success, but unless they finish better in 2015, they will be the nearly men once again.
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