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Someone fetch Plumtree a beer

Written by (Big Fish)

Posted in :Original Content, Sharks, Super Rugby on 11 Apr 2012 at 10:25
Tagged with : , , , ,

:arrow: In ancient Greece, a philosopher by the name of Zeno once founded a school of thought (Stoicism) that held that personal virtue was sufficient for happiness – that a well-developed and balanced mind would lead to a person being indifferent or invulnerable to the slings and arrows of misfortune. As a means of strengthening their spiritual strength, some stories hold that stoics daily challenged themselves to meet and endure difficult people and circumstances.

If this is true, than perhaps Zeno would have smiled upon the current plight of Sharks fans. Hot on the heels of a humiliating loss to the Hurricanes (the fourth loss in seven games), comes the news that talismanic hooker, Bismark du Plessis (apparently the more meek and mild of the du Plessis brothers) is on his way home and won’t be available to take on the Blues.

Everyone knows that the Sharks already have their collective backs against the wall and that the loss of Bismark, given his aggression, breakdown skills and ball-carrying is a further huge setback. However, despite my belief in Craig Burden and Kyle Cooper being two hugely talented players, I also think that the loss of Bismark is going to have a very unwelcome affect on the overall team dynamic and tactics, given his specific skill-set.

For many years South Africa was peculiar, particularly in a Southern Hemisphere context, in that we tended to follow the Jake White “fetch me a beer” line and eschewed a fetcher role in the team in favour of more generic loose-forwards with similar roles (think Burger, Smith, Rossouw, van Niekerk, Spies etc). A large part of the reason for this was that SA teams tended to win more ball from rucking over the ball or turning over ball due to superior ruck attendance, as opposed to ground-work.

This is a valid tactical choice, dependent on personnel, and is still quite popular in SA, although the new rules and speed of the game has resulted in more teams adopting fetcher-type roles in the team – the Sharks being one glaring exception in that they do not have any fetcher-type opensiders in their team.

For me this is especially problematic because of the style that the Sharks play – which has become much more similar to an Australasian style in this season. Whereas previously the Sharks tended to play the ball amongst the forwards as a matter of course, and only moved to the backs as a last resort or in broken play, we are now seeing the ball go wide much quicker than before. The gameplan on attack generally consists of attacking off quick ball in channels one and two with ball-carriers in the pack, and if that doesn’t work, moving the ball out wide and trying to break the line in midfield. The old predatory ability to hurt the opposition in broken play still remains as an ace in the hole too.   

This gameplan creates two primary turnover risks (leaving aside for now the lack of technique and discipline at ruck time that seems to have become endemic). Firstly, the reliance on individual, big ball carriers close to the ruck raises the chance for gang-tackling and opposition fetchers to turn us over (a regular occurrence this year), while breaking the line out wide also raises the possibility that we will not get numbers to the breakdown (Whitehead’s breaks last week are good examples of this).

Coupled with the loss of players who we are used to seeing bossing the rucks and creating a nuisance (Smit and Beast in particular), and the fact that all of the current loosies function as primary ball-carriers, the Sharks regularly find themselves outgunned at the rucks in terms of attendance and ground-skills. Even clean breaks and big ball carries often result in turnovers due to this problem.

Ultimately, a generic set of forwards is not able to address this problem, and it has been noticeable that at least with Bismark on the park we were able to compete at the breakdown. As well as Burden played last week, we suffered at the breakdown and coughed up after multiple phases (often close to the opposition try-line) purely because we did not have anyone to play to the ball and didn’t get numbers to the breakdown (not helped by poor work-rates amongst the forwards – often a back was at the ruck instead of a forward, while the forwards hung out in midfield). As soon as Bismark came on, we were able to turn over a few balls and not concede quick ball on defence.

So, I believe that in addition to the Sharks having a set of loosies not well suited to their gameplan (don’t buy the “everyone should be a fetcher” line – players have differentiated skill-sets based on their positions), the loss of Bismark makes us extremely vulnerable. The only (at least partial) solution that I see is for the Sharks to start Deysel; and this is likely to happen anyway, given the fact that Coetzee is lightly crocked. So while chance may see us having a bit of balance this week, the penny needs to drop for the powers that be if the Sharks are to turn their season around.  

The issues of leadership, discipline, mental strength and team culture are ones that a number of authors have raised already. These are things that cannot be changed overnight, but certainly need a great deal of attention. The selection of a fetcher-type player however, is a more immediate change that can be made, and my feel is that even with Coetzee fit, the Sharks may need to start Deysel and Bismark together if they hope to get the best use of their ball-carriers and game-breakers.


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