The Sharks are fifth on the Super Rugby Unlocked standings, and a loss to the Pumas in Nelspruit could be a death-blow.
DURBAN – All of a sudden the heady days of the Sharks topping Super Rugby seems surreally distant and who would have predicted that after three rounds of Super Rugby Unlocked, a visit to the Pumas in Nelspruit this Saturday looms as a desperate must-win for the Durbanites.
In terms of personnel, the Sharks are not a vastly changed team from February, with perhaps two or three departures hurting them significantly, but the most discernible difference in October is that they are bereft of confidence. And unfortunately for Lukhanyo Am’s players, that is an asset they will find as priceless as it is elusive after shipping a total of 90 points in two lamentable visits to Loftus.
The Sharks were not helped by a stop-start build-up to this latest visit to the Bulls, having had a break after their 49-28 SuperFan Saturday defeat to the same team, and then a bye last week after their cliffhanger win over the Lions in round one, but this only partly explains some latent structural defects in their game that were ruthlessly exposed by the Bulls in their 41-14 victory on Saturday.
The Sharks’ set-piece is in trouble, the big men of the Bulls dominating this aspect mercilessly in the second half, especially, and the kick-chase game that was so effective earlier this year in securing both territory and turnovers was inefficient at the weekend.
Sbu Nkosi, a menace in the air when he is given artfully flighted ball to chase, was virtually anonymous at Loftus. It was unfortunate that for much of Saturday’s game fans were wondering if he was still on the field.
While one is loathe to pinpoint individuals, it was obvious that scrumhalf Sanele Nohamba’s kicking radar was off, with the opposition back three having sufficient time and space to deal with his kicks, but while this was costly it should also be seen as a teething problem as a hugely talented young player feels his way into top-flight rugby.
Nohamba’s kicking was very good against the Lions, so let’s cut him some slack. During lockdown, the Sharks chose to part with the experience of Louis Schreuder but the decision was made with the future in mind so that coach Sean Everitt could keep the bright services of Nohamba, Grant Williams and Jaden Hendrikse, and there were no dissenting voices when that decision was made.
Similarly, it is difficult to be too critical of Dylan Richardson missing his jumpers five times, costly as this was to the Sharks’ efforts to establish momentum.
The 21-year-old was excellent in every other facet of the game in his transition from his usual position of flank to hooker. He is an immensely talented young player who stood out with his muscular ball-carrying, tackling, and tenacious turnovers at the breakdowns.
Young flanks in James Venter and Phepsi Buthelezi are just that – young – and they will get better with game time, and you also have to take into account that loose forwards are largely defused when their tight five is getting pounded, and ball carriers are not getting over the gain line.
Whatever the mitigating circumstances for the Sharks, the cold reality is that they are fifth on the Super Rugby Unlocked standings, and a loss to the plucky Pumas would see fans reaching for the panic button.