Don’t walk into a pub in East London and scream the Sharks have the best balance of skills, game plan and talent of all the South African teams or you might meet hardcore Stormers fans ready to shut you up, Bheki Cele style.
Of course I’m speaking from experience.
My argument was that, although the Sharks have lost six matches to the Stormers’ two this season and have practically lived on the brink of elimination for second half of the season, coach John Plumtree’s men have the tools to beat anyone, anywhere.
I made sure that I was at a safe enough distance to duck any beer that may be flung my way, of course, when I first presented my argument at the pub last Saturday morning. It didn’t help that the five passionate Stormers fans had already had more than six rounds each by the time the Super Rugby quarterfinal between the Reds and Sharks had even started. I suspect that the depressing Bulls performance against the Crusaders had a lot to do with that.
Nonetheless I proceeded to providing evidence for my assertion, while in my mind engineering a safe exit in case I failed to win them over to my school of thought.
I started with the guys that do the heavy duty work, the forward pack. The Sharks front row of Beast Mtawarira and Du Plessis brothers Bismarck and Jannie has been together since 2007 and established themselves as a fearsome trio this year following hooker John Smit’s departure. Beast was absent at the start of the season and it showed.
The Sharks form record, while Beast was out injured, read much like Liverpool FC’s last season form record: L-L-W-W-L-W-L-W-L. Such deep levels of inconsistency took the team to the brink of elimination.
Enter the Beast and suddenly the scrums were not longer going backwards resulting in the transformation of the form book: W-W-W-W-L-W-W-W (including last weekend’s win over the Reds). This may all seem coincidental but as any rugby coach will tell you, combinations are everything in this game therefore having an all Springbok front row would have had Plumtree jumping on his bed in delight.
I received a few disapproving grunts and moans and one oke used the time while I was speaking to order a refill and another dashed to take a leak.
I continued to the lock position, an area where the Sharks have traditionally been criticised, ridiculed and targeted by opposition teams after the retirement of the great mark Andrews and rightly so. But Steven Sykes and Anton Bresler have been steady for the Durban outfit. Throw in the ever-improving 20-year-old Pieter-Steph du Toit and you’ve got, well, locks that can get the job done.
The loose trio of Keegan Daniel, Marcell Coetzee and Willem Alberts has been nothing but sensational. And they’re been boosted by Ryan Kankowski’s recent return to form. By this point the passionate opinionists had stopped interrupting me and, I’d like to believe, were listening to me.
The backline has also been solid. Charl McLeod has distributed well, Michalak has been uncharacteristically consistent of late and JP Pietersen has been sensational.
All in all, the Sharks scored as many tries as the Chiefs and the Crusaders, 47, and gathered the most attacking bonus-points of the South African teams. Their defence has not been shabby either, having conceded only 31 tries. Only the Stormers (21) and the (30) have conceded less.
My point was made but the opinionists began pointing out that the Stormers had topped the log through the sheer determination of some capable back up players.
Flanker Siya Kolisi was supposed to play a cameo role this season, shadowing the talismanic Stormers captain Schalk Burger. But when Burger got injured in the first game, Kolisi blossomed into the find of the season, the patrons pointed out.
Joe Pietersen’s reliability at fullback, Gio Aplon’s enjoyable running and Peter Grant’s pivotal role at No 10, they pointed out. Not forgetting SA under-20 prop sensation Steven Kitschoff. The Stormers weren’t pretty to watch, they admitted with slight disapproving scowls on their faces, but they had topped the overall conference and gave themselves a chance at a home final.
More slurry-worded evidence was presented. Eben Etzebeth, the 19-year-old boy thrown into a man’s job and excelling. Bryan Habana’s return to form. All this evidence indeed pointed to a very talented and effective team. One thing lacked: a balanced game plan. The Stormers have a defence that would have rivalled the walls of Troy but they don’t offer a dime on attack.
We agreed to disagree and shook hands. Someone suggested we meet at the same pub to watch the semifinal between the two sides on Saturday. A loud “heck yeah!” erupted. I made a note in my mind at that moment to make sure I didn’t miss my bus back to Durban on Monday.