In rugby the All Blacks are sweeping all before them

It was Napoleon who was first recorded as saying he that he knew a battle would be won or lost by the degree of resolve shown by his troops in the periods of the fray when they had to defend, as opposed to when they were ordered to attack.

Rugby, we know, is war without guns and cannons. It is physical confrontation, first and foremost, and he who is not resolute in the physical showdowns is lost. A willingness to attack and the skill to offload in the tackle is what scores you tries and in the long run makes you a winner of competitions as opposed to also-rans, but deadly attack cannot happen if it is not underpinned by steadfastness on defence.

It is not being negative to say that in sport you first and foremost have to shore up your defence, you have to become a fortress and, quite literally, have the mindset of refusing to let the opposition score. It is as much a basic premise of soccer than it is of rugby. The trouble with both sports is when a team does not embrace the need to attack once they have sorted out their defence.

English soccer, and indeed the national team of that country, for too many years were too conservative in focusing solely on defence and hoping that the odd breakaway attack would win them the game.

It is why soccer teams such as Argentina, Germany and Spain have won the trophies in recent years while a team like England seldom advances beyond the quarter-finals.

And in rugby it is why the All Blacks are sweeping all before them. You can’t score against them and then once they have absorbed your pressure, they cut loose in the last 15 minutes with ruthlessly efficient attack and annihilate you. Because they can … How many games in recent years, especially against the Boks at Ellis Park, have the Kiwis been behind only to win emphatically with a brace of tries in the dying minutes…?

It is not being negative to say that defence must be the initial priority. It is the foundation. And, in fact, you cannot attack with long-term ambition if you do not have the springboard provided by a solid defence.

Over the two decades of Super Rugby, there is ample evidence to support this contention.

The Hurricanes, Highlanders and Chiefs of New Zealand have historically illustrated the point. Those Kiwi teams for some 15 years of this competition naively believed that their maverick attacking play made them above the basic dictum that defence separates the men from the boys.

The Hurricanes, probably more than any other team, have illustrate that profligacy on attack and a secondary commitment to defence adds up to also-ran status.

Going back to the days of superstars such as Christian Cullen and Tana Umaga, the Hurricanes revelled in scoring memorable tries emanating from deep within their half with their devil-may-care approach.

And they were hugely entertaining, as were the Highlanders, Chiefs and also the Blues. But the bottom line was that those teams ultimately lost more games than they won while their more pragmatic countrymen, the Crusaders, monotonously won titles.

Which brings us to the Sharks … The Crusaders won 19-14 at Kings Park last week, their relentless attack ultimately prevailing over the magnificent defence and scrambled attack of the home team.

Almost a year to the day, the Crusaders had been back in Durban and hoping to emulate their 42 point win in 2015.

In that year, the Sharks were hopeless on attack and quite obviously the same on defence. This year the attack had not advanced, but the fortitude in the tackle mean that the result was in question going into the final ten minutes.

As coach Gary Gold said as the dust was settling on the result: “I am extremely positive because I know I have a team that is exuding character. As a coaching staff we can work with that. The players have the right attitude and that means we have the principle ingredient with which to craft something special. It was not like that last year.”

By Mike Greenaway

Bismarck du Plessis’s final Sharks interview

There was no masking the emotion on Bismarck du Plessis’s face as he gave possibly his last ever interview in Sharks colours ahead of his Sharks career finale against the Stormers at Kings Park on Saturday. Just how much the Sharks mean to him was etched into every contour of his battle-scarred features.

“I read a scripture recently, which said ‘teach me to number my days’, and so yes, it’s a very emotional week,” the 31-year-old said. “But It’s hopefully not my last time that I’ll be playing here … you never know … but for me it’s been a great journey. I arrived here when I was the seventh best hooker in the Free State, when I got the opportunity from CEO Brian van Zyl van Zyl and coach Kevin Putt. I’m very grateful to them for sticking their heads out and giving me that opportunity.”

Ten years on he and his brother Jannie are having to prise themselves away from a city and a franchise that has become synonymous with the battling boets from Bethlehem
“Some of the most special memories have been just just to wake up every day in Durban, open the curtains and see the beautiful ocean. And also just to experience the amazing culture we have at the Sharks, it’s been the most special thing in my life to be able to wake up and play for the Sharks,” he said.
“But I don’t want any accolades, from anyone, that is not why I play the game,” the hooker said. “I would have been happy to play 20 games for Bethlehem dorp at the time, and I never thought I’d have this privilege to play for the Sharks.”

He says the Sharks have been his dream team for as long as he can remember.

“On holiday here as a five, six-year-old boy, I remember Jannie and I walking along Windermere Road to go watch the Club Champs, and watching great players like Springbok legend Danie Gerber and Domkrag (Springbok prop Frans Erasmus), Pote Human and all those great players who dominated the club scene at the time. I remember sitting at the top of the stands and wondering if I’d ever have the opportunity to play rugby. As I say, I don’t play for any accolades, I just play for my teammates and the respect I have for the guys who play with me.”
Two players have been especially instrumental in Bismarck’s evolvement into the best hooker in the world going into the September Rugby World Cup.

“When I arrived at the Sharks, John Smit was absolutely influential in everything I did. The other guy who gave me the best of everything and was like a father to me, was Johan Ackermann, the current Lions coach and former Sharks and Springbok lock – just the way he conducted himself on and off the field even with the ups and downs he went through.”
But, as he says, now his days in Durban are numbered, with French club Montpellier rumoured to be the recipients of some of the hottest property in the game.

“For me, it was always about backing the process and knowing where I stood, and that’s what’s sad about this chapter of my life. But like I said, John has always been great to me. When he was a player the way he helped me to develop my skills, he allowed me to become better than I was when I arrived here.
“For me it’s a very sad day to be leaving the Sharks, I guess I never thought this day would arrive. I’m a Sharks boy through and through, I love the Sharks with all my heart and I don’t want to play for any other side in the world.”

There have been Currie Cup title wins and Super Rugby finals, but once more Du Plessis insists that it is not about the trophies.

“In almost every year I’ve been here we’ve been involved in play-off matches, but I’m just happy with the group of players that I have been able to play with. A lot of people might measure themselves on the amount of trophies they’ve won, but I measure myself on the type of person I am as I leave here. I’m a much happier person. I remember writing my last exams, and packing up all by myself in my varsity room, stuffing it all into this little Volkswagen beetle I had and driving about 12 hours from Bloemfontein to Durban in a car that could only go about 80kmh and I had to fill up about six times because it only had a small petrol tank. So as I leave, and if I come back, I think I do so as a better person.”
Naturally it has been all the better to have his brother for most of the journey.

“You know how special it is or us, it was always the plan for Jannie and I to play rugby together,” Bismarck says. “I thought even if we could have just played together for Bethlehem dorp that would have been okay, so to play here at the Sharks with him has been so special. Other players have been like brothers to me too.The Beast, Jannie and I must have played 150 games together; JP Pietersen – who got married over the weekend – I can’t remember a game that I didn’t play with him. Then there’s Odwa Ndungane, and Ryan Kankowski, who has been my roommate from 2005. We went through a lot together, it’s really special and that’s why we’re such a close-knit group. We’re all like brothers.”
Du Plessis will leave the Kings Park pitch with tears in his eyes on Saturday night, no question about it.

“I’m the biggest Sharks fan and always will be, it’s about being the best and staying at the top of your game. It’s always about those succession plans when somebody leaves, and when someone comes in wondering if he will he able to do the job. But I think the Sharks are in a great space, at the beginning we didn’t even have a gym, and I don’t think there is any better culture or place to play rugby.

“For me, I am a passionate passionate Shark, I don’t know where I will be heading exactly. I’m a very principle-based guy and I won’t go anywhere else (in South Africa). If ever I get the opportunity again to come back, and the coaching staff think I can add value I will most likely take them up on that offer. I will miss this place with everything I have.”

by Mike Greenaway

Super Rugby Preview -Sharks in must win game against the Lions on Saturday

We are 20 years into Super Rugby, and there have been detractors that have said the competition has run its course, but how can you give a death sentence to a competition that after just one round has a premier team in the Sharks fighting for their lives?

For those who think this a melodramatic statement, consider the following: it is a given that teams hoping for a shot at the title first and foremost have to win their home games. The Sharks have lost their first home game, a fixture every rugby pundit in the Southern Hemisphere, outside of The Volksblad newspaper in Bloemfontein, said they would win.

And tomorrow they host a Lions team that for a few years now under the ultimate rugby rabble rouser, Johan Ackermann, a living legend that was still bossing the Bok scrum at the age of 37, have been threatening to restore the red and white to the glory days of the ‘90s when, funnily enough, they were the chief rivals to the Sharks.

The Lions lost last week to the Hurricanes in a match they totally dominated in Johannesburg, but they could not put the ball between the uprights while the bemused Wellingtonians scored tries on rare forays into the Lions half, and won a game they had no right to.

So the Lions are miffed. So too are the Sharks, whose game against the Cheetahs was glaringly similar to the Lions’ game.

So we have two annoyed teams determined to right the wrongs of last weekend. The difference is that there is way more pressure on the Sharks, the home team.

Let’s look at it like this. The Sharks have already broken the cardinal rule of losing at home. And if they lose at home to the Lions, what chance have they got of winning their next three fixtures – away to the Bulls at Loftus, then the Stormers in Cape Town, followed by the a return joust with the Cheetahs in Bloem?.

We are saying that if the Sharks lose tomorrow, they could well end up 0-5 down after five weeks of the competition, stone last, and fighting a rearguard battle for the rest of the tournament.

So is this a must-win game for the Sharks? You bet your life it is, because a second successive home defeat will rob them of confidence and momentum going into three away derbies against South African teams.

The stakes could not be higher for the Sharks. Lose and face the possibility of going five-zip down or win, enhance belief in the game plan, and stand a chance of winning some of those three away games before a homecoming match against the Chiefs, the recent two-time champions who will hardly be push-overs, the home ground advantage of Kings Park notwithstanding.

Gary Gold, the Director of Coaching who is only into his second week in charge after the pre-season had been under the tutelage of Brendan Venter, has had to make several injury-enforced changes to his team. Lock Mouritz Botha is out with an eye injury and is replaced by the exiting Pumas lock Giant Mtyanda. He is an exceptional talent and is indeed a beast, speaking of which, Tendai Mtawarira is sidelined with a calf injury, and that is okay given the excellent form Dale Chadwick showed when he came on as substitute at loosehead prop, and is rewarded with a start in the position.

On the right wing, there is a welcome return for veteran Odwa Ndungane because of an injury to S’Bura Sithole. The loss of the latter is a blow, and when he is fit it is hoped that his dynamicism will find its way back into the midfield, where he can be a potent threat at outside centre.

At hooker, captain Bismarck du Plessis is restored after missing the opening match with a shoulder complaint. The TV cameras that trained on him last week showed a man in patent torment.

“You saw a Sharks man suffering serious disappointment,” Du Plessis said. “I just knew that we were a much better side than that. We let ourselves down in a lot of areas of the field, especially when it came to exiting out of our own half. We had the right idea of how we want to play, but were not doing it in the right areas of the field.”

Du Plessis will be on pitch tomorrow night to direct affairs. Sharks fans will be desperate for him to expertly conduct the home orchestra. Because if he gets it wrong, and the Sharks lose two home games in a row, they almost certainly will go five games down, and it will be a forlorn battle from then on.

Sharks: 15 SP Marais, 14 Odwa Ndungane, 13 Waylon Murray, 12 Heimar Williams, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Patrick Lambie, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Tera Mtembu, 7 Renaldo Bothma, 6 Marcell Coetzee, 5 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 4 Lubabalo Mtyanda, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis (capt), 1 Dale Chadwick.

Subs: Kyle Cooper, Thomas du Toit, Matt Stevens, Marco Wentzel, Jean Deysel, Conrad Hoffmann, Fred Zeilinga, André Esterhuizen.

Lions: 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Howard Mnisi, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Marnitz Boshoff, 9 Ross Cronje, 8 Warren Whiteley (capt), 7 Warwick Tecklenburg, 6 Derick Minnie, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Martin Muller, 3 Ruan Dreyer, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1. Jacques van Rooyen.

Subs: Robbie Coetzee, Schalk van der Merwe, Julian Redelinghuys, JP du Preez, Ruaan Lerm, Faf de Klerk, Elton Jantjies, Harold Vorster.

by Mike Greenaway

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