Successful experiment

Moving Lwazi Mvovo to fullback helped the Sharks build depth in the position, writes MIKE GREENAWAY.

New Zealand has Israel Dagg and Ben Smith; Australia has Israel Folau, England once had Jason Robinson, so why can’t South Africa add Lwazi Mvovo to Willie le Roux and Gio Aplon?

That is the question Jake White asked himself midway through the Sharks’ 2014 Super Rugby campaign as he looked to add pace and X factor at the back to safety-first basics.

The common denominator between the aforementioned players, by the way, is they are all equally comfortable at wing as they are at fullback.

In justifying dropping popular and accomplished fullback SP Marais to the bench for the Sharks’ match against the Waratahs at Kings Park, won comfortably by the Sharks, White said he had an ‘instinct’ that Mvovo had the potential to be the next Christian Cullen.

‘I really think that if you look at all the top fullbacks in Super Rugby, they can all play wing and fullback, and I just sensed that Lwazi would become more of an asset to the team if he understood the subtle requirements of wing and fullback,’ the former Springbok coach says.

White says he moved Mvovo to fullback not because he had lost faith in Marais but because he wanted to develop his squad and Mvovo as a player.

‘I knew the value I had in SP as a player, but for a few games I wanted to try Lwazi at fullback just because I wanted to enrich our depth.’

White says the courage shown by Mvovo in the 2013 Currie Cup final against Western Province at Newlands, when he played out the match with a broken hand, had shown him Mvovo had the resilience and determination necessary to be the Sharks’ last line of defence.

‘This guy might be smaller than most wings and fullbacks, but he has shown on the field of battle that he has the courage to do the job,’ White says.

'He has shown on the field of battle that he has the courage to do the job' – Jake White

At the time of that shock Sharks win, Brendan Venter broke his silence as coach of the Durban team – part of his contract with Sharks CEO John Smit was that he did not deal with the media – by contacting The Mercury in Durban to ask to make a public point on Mvovo.

‘I cannot speak highly enough of what Lwazi did in that final,’ Venter says. ‘Early in the first half he suffered the injury and said he was in considerable pain. I asked him to stay on as I needed to use our backline substitute, Heimar Williams, later in the game – centre Frans Steyn was always going to only play 60 minutes [because of a lack of match fitness after a long injury break]. 

‘The hand was strapped up at half-time and I asked Lwazi if he was able to continue, and he said he would carry on regardless,’ Venter continues. ‘He was in agony but played as if nothing was wrong, making tackles, fielding high balls and finishing off a try [that was disallowed].’

Venter, a medical doctor, said he had twice broken his hand in his playing days and knew how sore it must have been.

‘There is a perception that Lwazi is “soft” [because he is one of the smaller players] but he certainly showed how tough he actually is,’ Venter said. ‘He went the extra mile for his team.’

White agrees: ‘I’ve never had a doubt as to whether Lwazi could make the tackle that would stop a try being scored. And he showed that again when I played him there this season. There are certain games you can target to use him as fullback, knowing he is safe on defence but can then give you something different on attack. There are games where you focus on attacking the opposition, and you can really have a crack with Lwazi at fullback because you know what he can offer.’

A number of critics have questioned White’s decision to drop Marais for Mvovo, because of the former’s valuable ability to kick long and far with his natural left boot.

Mvovo, himself, has the answer: ‘When Jake took over at the Sharks, one of the first things he said to me was to work on my kicking out of hand,’ the 28-year-old said. ‘It was not a strong point but in pre-season I worked on it every day, and I am happy it’s no longer the weak point it once was.’

In more recent games, Marais has been back at fullback with Mvovo in his accustomed spot on the wing, but White is insistent that the experiment has been a successful one.

‘SP has assets that make him a very good fullback but, in the long term, Lwazi is now a better player for having had that time at fullback and I honestly believe 15 is the position where he will ultimately mature, and it is where the Sharks will gain maximum utility out of him.’

– This article first appeared in the July issue of SA Rugby magazine

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