Sharks playing intelligent rugby

The Sharks have been outstanding in the first month of Vodacom Super Rugby, writes MARK KEOHANE.

Cut the Sharks some slack. The weekend’s bonus-point win against the Lions was a very good result.

The Lions were committed and competitive. Only a fortnight ago they smashed the Stormers, who on Saturday should have beaten the Crusaders for the first time in Christchurch. The Lions, if there is a criticism, initially played like a team whose players had the desire to win in Durban but never had the belief.

The selection of Elton Jantjies to start at No 10 and the decision to shift in-form No 10 Marnitz Boshoff to fullback was a poor one. Jantjies, if he plays, has to be given the goal-kicking, the line-kicking and the responsibility to control the game. Boshoff, in Durban, was always in the game because of the kicking responsibilities. Jantjies was nothing more than a link and his response was to produce a performance absent in authority and consistent with the struggle of his season with the Stormers.

The Lions will give every South African team a tough afternoon. Playing styles are similar and every South African team is capable of confrontation and physicality. The strains will come when asked to rely on more than an arm-wrestle and when certain teams from Australia and New Zealand play a brand of rugby that avoids mauling and a game centred on the collision one pass out from where the ball is recycled.

The Sharks are South Africa’s best squad, in terms of depth and also style of play. They are also the best coached South African team in the competition.

Their style of play in the first month of the tournament has been about pragmatism and about winning. The Sharks, in previous Super Rugby campaigns, have not taken Currie Cup form into Super Rugby. They have often started poorly or finished poorly, but the recipe to Super Rugby is to get a good start that is built on substance.

The humidity of Durban in February and March makes it a very difficult place to play rugby. The hosts are as handicapped as those who visit because playing attacking ball-in-hand rugby is a risk.

The good teams play intelligent rugby in Durban in these months. They rely on a strong set piece, emphasise structure and the keeping of shape in defence and win through counter-attacking brilliance and the reliability of a good goal-kicker.

The Sharks, in 2014, are this good team.

Good teams accumulate points, strike with half a chance and get the job done, even if it takes 82 minutes. It doesn’t matter when the bonus point try is scored. What matters is that there is one and the Sharks have twice produced five league point wins in three starts. Equally impressive was on the occasion when there was no try-scoring bonus point the opposition (Hurricanes) were limited to three penalties.

The Sharks will play a more complete brand of rugby once on the road and in conditions that encourage greater expression with ball in hand. For now they’re just playing the most intelligent rugby we’ve seen from a Sharks team for some time.

They have a coach who knows his starting XV, who knows when a ‘horses for courses’ selection has to be made and they have a coach who knows how to get the maximum out of his X-factor players.

Jake White’s influence on Frans Steyn is obvious. Equally with Ryan Kankowski.

Steyn was brilliant against the Lions. He was only told he was playing No 10 two hours before kick-off but he embraced the challenge. His goal-kicking was flawless, his control of the match was good – if not without blemish – and his scrambling on defence highlighted his attitude. This is Steyn as good as he has been. This is Steyn showcasing all his skills but doing so with a mature mind.

Statistics don’t tell the story of Steyn or the Sharks. Statistics, of tackles made, tackles missed, metres made and of ball carries, provide an insight but they are not the story of a match.

Good coaches look for work rate off the ball. Good teams invariably have a defensive presence because of the willingness of the players to be on their feet more than they are on the ground recovering from making a tackle.

The statistics you won’t easily find in the many that are available to the rugby public includes that of off-the-ball work rate and also what a team achieves within the first three phases of play.

Endless phase play is an illusion of what represents good rugby, with 70% of tries in the professional game scored within a three-phase attack.

The Sharks are a team that understands most of the damage has to be done in that three-phase attack and they also appreciate that rugby is a game often won when you don’t have the ball.

I think they’ve been outstanding – and 14 league points from a possible 15 supports this sentiment.

Super Rugby stats (Round 4)

Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images