What an amazing game of rugby! Yes, the Sharks lost to an 85th minute converted try by the mighty Hurricanes but what an effort they put in. After last week’s win in Auckland I expected that the allure of returning home would dull the Shark’s sharpness and it would be a hammering in Napier. Instead, they played with guts and determination and a physical effort that was consistent and intense right up to the very end.
However, additionally and importantly, they showed increasing signs of attacking continuity that are both long overdue and, oh, so welcome. For a moment forget the result and look at various aspects of the game that were on show.
At times the Sharks looked better in the off-load than most New Zealand sides and these days that is the ultimate compliment. It happened again and again and the Kiwi commentators were most complimentary of the skills shown. That is a rare occasion when they rate South African players. Usually all they praise is physicality. More please.
Don’t get me wrong, there is still much to be done but, as I said last week, there are green shoots of recovery and growth appears to be accelerating.
Let’s look at some bad. When are we going to learn to run in overlaps? On a number of occasions the Sharks had constructed men over situations but poor timing and lateral sliding meant runners were not put away. Contrast that with the Hurricanes. Even four against three in a tiny space usually led to a break out. It is a simple rule of thumb, you straighten and run at the inside shoulder, and your team mates judge their support runs to keep the ratio between width and depth at the optimum. Draw and give so the next man can do the same. It’s a simple concept but requires almost endless practice to get it ingrained as second nature. All our sides need work on this. Rassie take note.
The Sharks and our sides in general, have a tendency to give away possession in the opponents’ red zone. Just when we have done the hard work to get close, a poor line out throw, sloppy scrum or penalty offence negates the effort. New Zealand sides get there and score. The Hurricanes showed incredible patience and skill at the very end. We must learn.
Players who came through with honour were the Du Preez brothers first and foremost. Jean-Luc is like Wahl Bartmann reincarnated and Robert looks less clumsy and more assured these days. His goal kicking has improved in spades and I could see him in green and gold playing the Henry Honiball role that is so valuable today. Lukhanyo Am and Andre Esterhuizen didn’t suffer in comparison to Vince Aso and Ngani Laumape except in making those killer passes. However, they looked dangerous at times against a great defence. Thomas Du Toit was immense in both tight and loose and looks a certain star of the future. Ruan Botha was a giant on the field and seems to lead well. Others, like Sbu Nkosi and Stephan Lewies, caught the eye at times and there seemed to be growing team cohesion. That is what a tour can bring.
Then the enigma. At times Curwin Bosch looked pure world class. His kick-offs are impossibly high and yet spot on time and time again. Brad Shields paid tribute to the pressure these inflicted on the Hurricanes. Also, Curwin has speed and timing and an ability to spot danger that allows him to get in support that reminds me of the great Scottish legend Andy Irvine. He has a massive boot and a good head on his shoulders. However, is he ready for the next step? Last week, and this week, there were irritating defensive lapses that led to points conceded and he looks a bit uncertain under the high ball. Compare him to Damien McKenzie and you see that there is much work still to be done to polish the diamond that undoubtedly exists. Potential superstars get judged by a different standard from the masses before they can be crowned. He must not be rushed to ensure his full potential is realised. Is this recognised I wonder?
So, yawn, yet another defeat in New Zealand but look beyond it. As with the Bulls, much has been improved on tour by playing at Kiwi intensity. Their clash next week in Durban will be fascinating. I expect a classic at a standard we are not used to in local derbies.
Hopefully Rassie’s squad sessions will be standardising practices and philosophies and concocting a Springbok style of play that will be competitive and expansive. There is reason to hope. Players are starting to raise their hands.