The Sharks completed their third win from four games against Kiwi teams, and if not for a last-gasp 82nd-minute try by Ngani Laumape against the Hurricanes, they would be four from four. All the more puzzling is they have struggled against South African opposition with only one win from four games, and one draw and two losses against Australian teams.
It is surprising, to say the least, that a team can have success against the dominant New Zealand conference and struggle against weaker opposition. So what are the Sharks doing?
The Sharks have built a game plan around being both ultra conservative and hyper-aggressive at the same time. They are the team that kicks out-of-hand the most but at the same time are the team that offloads the most.
For the Sharks, it’s all about getting in the right areas of the field before playing an unpredictable game.
Du Preez and Game Management
The return of flyhalf Robert Du Preez to Durban has given the Sharks a super leg to play behind. Not only does he have a monster boot he is deadly accurate off the tee, kicking at a competition leading 88% success rate making him the highest point-scorer in the competition.
Du Preez dictates where the Sharks will play the game and more often than not, he will hoof it downtown as quickly as possible. They have an exit strategy that extends to their own forty, sometimes halfway. Playing from the safety of the opposition half is the number one priority.
This low-risk play limits the ability of Sharks to string together high numbers of phases – they have the third lowest count of seven-plus phases. As a result, they don’t have much resemblance of a pattern in their game. The structures are often messy and player positioning is all over the place but it doesn’t matter – Du Preez can pull the trigger and drive the ball downfield releasing pressure.
Shark Attack – Offload-a-palooza
Despite having very little structure and playing a territory-focused game, the Sharks attacking production is quite surprising. They rank sixth in tries scored and fifth in line breaks despite ranking first in penalty shots at goal.
Where most New Zealand teams have abandoned shooting for goal in favour of kicking for the corner, the Sharks accumulate points by knocking over three’s with the sharpshooter Du Preez at every opportunity.
This has been the same failed tactic that Australian teams continue to pursue against New Zealand teams only to be trounced by an avalanche of points at the other end. However, there is one thing the Sharks do exceptionally well that Australian teams don’t – offload.
The Sharks are by far and away the biggest offloaders in the competition – registering 170 so far with the next best being 147. This isn’t directly correlated with winning but does show they are prepared to take risks with the ball in hand. In contrast, just one Australian side has over 100 offloads (the Waratahs), with all three other Aussie sides ranking in the bottom four with less than 90.
Offloading requires trust, foresight, anticipation, and skill. When executed it is almost impossible to defend and often results in front-foot ball at worst and a line break and five points at best. The Sharks have thrown conventional structures out in favour of skill-based play around offloading.
Once they obtain possession in the opposition half, they play a version of 1-3-3-1 that often looks like an under-9s game but very quickly things open up and they create scoring opportunities.
The team has three of the top fifteen offloaders in the competition, including the number one, openside flanker Jean-Luc Du Preez, who has an astounding 31 offloads.
The Sharks big loosies are hard to tackle, but they are very adept at getting the ball away to a support runner. They often win the contact, drag defenders in and create space by getting the ball away. This can look static, occurring multiple times in short space in sporadic nature before the cracks become holes, and all of sudden someone is streaking away.
If they win a penalty they’ll take three points, if not they commit to offloading until they hit pay dirt with a try. They have put together some beautiful passages of play this season that rival that of New Zealand sides. This high-risk unpredictable play does result in a high error rate, but played at the right end of the field doesn’t hurt the Sharks as much.
They balance conservativeness in their own half with an aggressive offloading attack in the opposition half and it seems to be working against New Zealand sides – helping neutralise their own attacking firepower. Where Australian coaches are afraid to take risks, the Sharks are taking an extraordinary amount of them.
The team has a young squad that has issues elsewhere.
At set piece, the team has been inconsistent – both at the scrum and lineout, despite having the Beast in the front row and one of the best jumpers in Super Rugby in Ruan Botha. The young backs also make a number of unforced errors that would cause a coach to tear his hair out.
These are the things that hold the team back and why they can’t achieve consistent results. Head coach Rob Du Preez (senior) spoke after the Chiefs game about how this team is learning and growing each week, but put the ceiling very high.
“This is a great team, this is a team that’s got the makings of winning a championship, whether it’s this year or next year it’s going to come,” he said.
If they can retain the core group of this team and continue to improve stability in the problem areas, the Sharks will be a surprising threat to New Zealand dominance and could be South Africa’s next great team.
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