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Tendai Mtawarira © Gallo Images

Sharks pack inspired by mindset shift

There are probably many reasons why the Sharks’ performance graph is suddenly heading upwards, and psychology and focus on team culture and playing style has doubtless played a big part, but none of that would be relevant were it not for the massive transformation of the pack.

The forwards struggled to impose themselves in their opening Super Rugby match of the year against the Lions, and at the time it brought back memories of the Achilles heel that cost them what should have been a deserved Currie Cup title after they had dominated the 2017 log in the domestic competition. The fears appeared to be confirmed when the Brumbies (in the first 20 minutes of the Canberra game) and the Rebels won the forward battles in Australia.

But it was the Sharks on the front foot, physically dominant and in charge of possession in the matches played in New Zealand against the Blues and the Hurricanes, and as a result the Durbanites were decidedly unlucky not to return home with two wins against Kiwi teams that would have made all the difference to their challenge in the local conference.

As it is though the points picked up overseas have made a big difference to their challenge in a year where away wins have become an extremely rare occurrence. The Lions are 11 points ahead of them but they still have to tour whereas the Sharks, who face an extended home run now that starts with Saturday’s important Jonnsons Kings Park derby against the Bulls, have a game in hand on the frontrunners. The second placed Sharks also have a game in hand on the third placed Stormers.

The Sharks big men have turned in energised and inspired performances over the past two weekends. The loose-forwards were lauded for their showing against the Blues, but tighthead prop Thomas du Toit was particularly prominent in general play against the Hurricanes and Chiliboy Ralepelle, given the opportunity to start, has shown why he has a Springbok blazer in his cupboard.

There have also been some strong performances from the second row of skipper Ruan Botha and Stephan Lewies, but perhaps the man who has been the galvaniser is The Beast, Tendai Mtawarira. Now 32, it would be understandable if Mtawarira lacked motivation and energy, but against the Hurricanes he was as busy as he has ever been and the work-rate of the most experienced player appeared to inspire those around him.

“We (the pack) are a work in progress and have stuck to our guns and concentrated on getting a little better each week,” says Mtawarira.

“And we have done that. Thomas du Toit has done really well in settling into tighthead after a tough start to the competition. But with game time he has improved. Tight forwards need time to settle into new positions.

“The whole pack has put in the effort, now the big challenge is going to be against our big rivals. The Bulls back themselves, their forwards are offloading, just as we are. We have to shut them down. We have just played two New Zealand teams and so know what to expect, because the Bulls are heavily influenced by the Kiwi style of playing.”

That may be partially true but not wholly true. John Mitchell has blended much of what works for New Zealanders into the style of the Bulls, but they are effectively a blend of the Kiwi approach and the traditional South African approach. The way the Bulls mauled the highly rated Stormers pack on Easter Saturday should have been a warning to the Sharks forwards that they may be in for a tough battle up front.

For Mtawarira though the key is that the Sharks go all out to ensure they control possession rather than let the opposition dominate possession and thus dictate the game. He says the refusal to let that happen was a decision made after the disappointing Australian leg of their tour.

“It was horrible when we lost those two games in Australia, and we decided among ourselves to rather go down fighting in New Zealand than to stand back and let the opposition control possession and the game. We made a collective decision to keep the ball in hand,” he said.

“Against the Rebels we let them keep the ball and dominate us up front, and the result was nearly 50 points. You can’t play rugby when you are doing all the defending, so we changed our mindset. No more defending and a lot more attacking.”


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