Schalk Burger admitted that the Sharks have been “frustrating” to watch this season and noted that the lack of a clear playing identity is at the heart of their troubled campaign.
Prior to the start of the season last September, many had the Sharks as favourites to conquer the South African Shield and provide the country’s best hope of challenging Leinster for the Vodacom United Rugby Championship title.
This was especially considering the significant investment that saw the recruitment of Springboks Bongi Mbonambi, Siya Kolsi and Eben Etzebeth, as well as centre Rohan Janse van Rensburg and star loose forward Vincent Tshituka.
However, the Sharks go into the final two rounds of the Vodacom URC looking to salvage a campaign that sees them potentially missing on both the playoffs and qualification for next season’s Champions Cup.
During a Vodacom URC media round table on Tuesday, Burger put forward the argument that the Sharks had become overly reliant on their Springbok-powered pack.
“The Sharks are a bit frustrating to watch because they have so many good players,” Burger said.
“The only way out when you watch them play is when they have their big-name Springboks present. They play with a national squad pack and it becomes a set-piece and kick battle, where they put you under pressure.
“That’s probably, currently, just a culture thing.”
Burger said the current playing style was a stop-gap that was needed when director of rugby Neil Powell stepped in as head coach after Sean Everitt was removed from his position midway through the season.
“When you take over any side, it’s easier to make them brave and cultivate a good defence and get a decent kicking game into place than creating a playing style where attack outworks the defence,” Burger said.
“That’s what makes Leinster so special – how quick they set up their attack and how cleverly they utilise it. That said, it’s one of the most difficult things to get right in rugby and that’s where it comes down to work rate, team culture and the conditioning of your players. You can’t just turn up and say the Sharks need to play like Leinster.”
John Plumtree has been heavily linked with a potential return as Sharks head coach and was recently spotted attending a match at Kings Park.
Burger said that while appointing Plumtree could be a good “tonic”, something needs to change sooner rather than later as the Sharks could face the reality of an exodus of senior players. Siya Kolisi and Thomas du Toit have already had moves away from Durban confirmed, while tighthead prop Carlu Sadie has also a reported target of French clubs.
“To me, the Sharks still need to find out the way they really play. What is the identity of the Sharks? The current squad seems really happy off the field and there’s definitely signs of nice overall culture growing there, but on the field it’s quite tricky to pinpoint the way they’re trying to play,” said Burger.
“It’s not going to happen overnight. The coaching staff has been reshuffled quite significantly over the past two years. Neil Powell has had to step up from director of rugby to fill in as head coach and for him it’s a big transition coming from sevens.
“He might be brilliant for developing an overall framework for the franchise and bringing the youth through, but coming into the 15-man game, it becomes so technical and the smaller intricacies come to the fore.
“In the Sharks’ case, it’s the finer details that will make your side tick, not the bigger picture.
“There are rumours that Plum is coming back and we even saw him in the stands the other day. He understands what Sharks rugby is about and they enjoyed a lot of success previously under him. He could be a tonic, but the rugby community is going to have to be patient because it’s going to be a while,” said Burger.
“The other problem is that our player turnover in South Africa is high. The issue becomes how you build a future if there’s no long-term commitment from your senior players. It will have to change sooner than later.”
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