Kicking game key for Sharks

The tactical kicking of Michael Claassens and Joe Pietersen will be key to the Sharks’ cause if they are to maintain their unbeaten start to the Super Rugby season, writes CRAIG LEWIS.

The Sharks will head to Loftus on Friday night. It will be the Durban-based team’s first clash away from the coast, and as is so often the case in Pretoria, the aerial battle at altitude will be a crucial aspect of the game.

Last weekend, the Sharks kicked 25 times out of hand (according to the Vodacom Stats App), and their ability to successfully contest for balls in the air was one of the key factors that led to their victory over the Stormers.

Afterwards, Stormers coach Robbie Fleck admitted the Sharks had put them under pressure with a sequence of high bombs, while managing to pin them back in their own territory at other important stages of the second half.

It was a strategy that worked well for the Sharks, and while it will be interesting to see what approach they adopt on Friday night, there’s no doubt an accurate kicking performance from Claassens and Pietersen would go a long way towards a fourth successive victory. Claassens will make his first start of the season on Friday, and his strong kicking game may well have been a factor in his selection at scrumhalf.

With the Sharks having impressively shored up their defence this season, another key pre-season focus has been to ensure their tactical kicking complements this aspect of the game.

One of the often overlooked hallmarks of New Zealand rugby is the accuracy and decision-making that goes with their contestable kicks, enabling them to get into the right areas of the field, while then pressuring opponents to regain possession. As an aside, last year's Super Rugby finalists, the Highlanders and Hurricanes, kicked 18,000m and 16,000m respectively last season, which stood in stark contrast to the Sharks' mere 8,000m.

It’s clear the Sharks have overhauled their defensive and kicking game this season, and again these will be crucial facets of play as they look to strangle the Bulls into submission.

However, they will be fully aware of the dangers posed by the Bulls’ back three. Currie Cup star Jamba Ulengo has been brought in on the wing, and along with talented fullback Warrick Gelant, the Bulls boast real counter-attacking threats. Bjorn Basson is also one of the most efficient wingers when it comes to safely collecting contestable kicks.

In this regard, the Sharks will know that they can’t afford to get their kicking game wrong in Pretoria, and Willie le Roux in particular will be determined to produce an improved performance with the boot.

The Sharks have also acknowledged that they need to offer a bit more on attack, and protect possession better. After a couple of gruelling clashes in recent weeks, director of rugby Gary Gold has decided to make some rotational changes, and it also remains to be seen what sort of effect this might have on Friday’s encounter.

The Bulls, after a good win over the Rebels and then a bye, will be determined to produce a competitive performance at a time when it seems some pundits are already writing them off.

A disappointing crowd turned up at Loftus for their match against the Rebels, but they should receive better support against the Sharks, and only a vastly improved performance will enable them to give the Loftus faithful something to shout about.

It’s not often that the Sharks will head to Pretoria as widely regarded favourites, and while they should come away with a victory, this is likely to be another physical arm-wrestle befitting a South African derby.

Overall: Bulls 15, Sharks 9, Draw 2
Loftus: Bulls 8, Sharks 4, Draw 1

– The Bulls have won nine of their last 12 matches against the Sharks, including each of their last three, but at no point in that span have they beaten them by more than nine points.
– After snapping a six-game losing streak with a win in round two, the Bulls will be looking to secure back-to-back wins in Super Rugby for the first time since round 10 of last season, which was their last encounter with the Sharks.
– The Sharks have put together six wins on the trot and a seventh win would see the streak extend to their longest in Super Rugby since they won eight in a row across the 2006 and 2007 seasons.
– The Bulls remain the only team in the competition yet to concede a first-half try this season, although they’ve conceded four penalty goals in this period.
– Sharks flyhalf Joe Pietersen has successfully converted 14 shots at goal so far this season, the third most of any player and the most of any South African in the competition.

Team Top point-scorer Top try-scorer Most metres gained Most tackles
Bulls Francois Brummer (24) Bjorn Basson (3) Warrick Gelant (234) Jannes Kirsten (27)
Sharks Joe Pietersen (40) Odwa Ndungane (2) Willie le Roux (215) Marcell Coetzee (35)

Bulls – 15 Warrick Gelant, 14 Jamba Ulengo, 13 Jan Serfontein, 12 Burger Odendaal, 11 Bjorn Basson, 10 Francois Brummer, 9 Rudy Paige, 8 Arno Botha, 7 Jannes Kirsten, 6 Roelof Smit, 5 Grant Hattingh, 4 RG Snyman, 3 Marcel van der Merwe, 2 Adriaan Strauss (c), 1 Trevor Nyakane.
Subs: 16 Jaco Visagie, 17 Lizo Gqoboka, 18 Hencus van Wyk, 19 Jason Jenkins, 20 Nic de Jager, 21 Piet van Zyl, 22 Tian Schoeman, 23 Jesse Kriel.

Sharks – 15 Willie le Roux, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Paul Jordaan, 12 André Esterhuizen, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Joe Pietersen, 9 Michael Claassens, 8 Daniel du Preez, 7 Philip van der Walt, 6 Marcell Coetzee, 5 Stephan Lewies, 4 Etienne Oosthuizen, 3 Lourens Adriaanse, 2 Kyle Cooper, 1 Beast Mtawarira (c).
Subs: 16 Franco Marais, 17 Juan Schoeman, 18 Coenie Oosthuizen, 19 Hyron Andrews, 20 Keegan Daniel, 21 Cobus Reinach, 22 Garth April, 23 Odwa Ndungane.

Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Stuart Berry (South Africa), Rasta Rashivhenge (South Africa)
TMO: Willie Vos (South Africa)

SA Rugby magazine's SuperBru picks

Stormers vs Brumbies

Lions vs Cheetahs

Crusaders vs Kings

Waratahs vs Highlanders

Reds vs Blues

Jaguares vs Chiefs

Hurricanes vs Force

Sunwolves vs Rebels

Photo: Shaun Roy/Gallo Images

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