Director of rugby Neil Powell says the Cell C Sharks benefited from having a proper pre-season before the Vodacom United Rugby Championship.
The Sharks began their 2022-23 campaign with unconvincing tour wins over Zebre and the Dragons, before going down 54-34 to Leinster in Dublin.
But, they bounced back last week with an impressive 40-12 victory over the Glasgow Warriors, thanks largely to the impact made by their Bok-laden bench in the second half, and are sitting fourth on the URC log.
By making some big off-season signings, including Springboks Eben Etzebeth and Rohan Janse van Rensburg, the Sharks have assembled a powerful squad expected by many to go all the way to win the URC, having fallen at the quarter-final stage last season.
During a media conference on Thursday, Powell expertly dodged a question about the Sharks’ tendency to lose matches that really mattered and if there were mental reasons for it.
“The big focus for us going into the new season was continuity, in coaching staff and players. It’s something the Sharks have lacked over the past few years,” Powell said ahead of their match against Ulster in Durban on Saturday.
“We had three different defence coaches in a 12-month period. The way Warren Whiteley is coaching defence now compared to how John McFarland did … they’re sitting on opposite sides of the spectrum.
“So, that continuity was key, to get the players to know the coaches and their rugby philosophies and to understand what they need to implement on the field. The last few games have shown that we are starting to move in the right direction.”
Powell said the Sharks had identified and worked on their areas of weakness during the pre-season.
“It was the first proper pre-season we’d had in three years, so the coaches could actually drill those plans, maps and defensive systems into the players, who could actually focus and work on them. The benefits of that have been evident in our last few games.
“We’re not where we want to be yet,” he added. “There are still a lot of areas of the game from a system and individual perspective that we can be better at but, as I said, we’re definitely moving in the right direction.”
Powell, who joined the Sharks earlier this month after a nine-year stint as Blitzbok head coach, is clear when it comes to what he hopes to accomplish in Durban.
“For us, it’s all about building the Sharks brand and you can only do that if the team is successful on the field. That is my main focus,” he said.
“I also have short-term and long-term goals in terms of looking after the Sharks Academy. We want to be more successful in getting our juniors to come through in the U20 competition and then make it to the Currie Cup and all the way to the URC, so we don’t have to buy players from outside our system.
“Obviously the structures – coaching- and player-wise – at senior level are also my responsibility and there’s always room for improvement. But it’s not a one-man show and I will definitely get opinions and advice from guys like Eduard [Coetzee, Sharks CEO] and [high-performance manager] Michael Horak.
“It’s going to be a combined effort to make the Sharks a brand that everyone recognises, not just in South Africa but in the UK and Europe, too.”
— SA Rugby magazine (@SARugbymag) October 20, 2022
Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images