The Sharks faced one of their toughest and most important matches this past weekend, returning from a successful but exhausting Australasian tour to a Jaguares side settled in South Africa. Their 33-19 win suggested nothing in the way of fatigue but everything in the way of quality.
The Sharks are currently playing the most enjoyable rugby in the tournament. But they are not doing this at the expense of their basics. They are also topping the table after six rounds. Their pack, who don’t boast a particularly experienced collective, are fronting and dominating every week, with the forwards seeming to go from strength to strength. No better example than eighthman Sikhumbuzo Notshe, who a commentator over the weekend described as a player “rejuvenated by the Sharks”. He scored an excellent try and his presence was felt relentlessly all over the field. Their backline is way ahead of any of the other South African sides, looking more and more settled each week and more and more threatening. Aphelele Fassi continues to star between two quality wings. Bosch has remained consistent and clinical at ten, while Louis Schreuder appears another Cape Townian rejuvenated in Durban. Lukhanyo Am and Andre Esterhuizen have been one of the premier centre pairings this tournament and Am, once again, was immense. His impact on defensive alignment is so noticeable, as is his fitness as he makes a tackle and returns to his feet almost immediately.
But, as is the whole team’s fitness. You can’t play the type of rugby the Sharks play if you are not fit. Rugby that is built on high pressure defence and converting this defensive dominance into break away tries. If you analyse the Sharks game, it is centred on aggressive and relentless defence, but they have also been scoring some of the most beautiful tries of the tournament. Historically, the fittest teams win tournaments too. Think Springboks 2007, All Blacks 2015. Think the Crusaders nearly every year in Super Rugby. These teams have all played a certain brand of rugby, but been able to play it for 80 minutes, not at the expense of themselves. While this is built on physical fitness, there is a mental energy that is becoming apparent in the Sharks camp, which is characteristic of tournament winning sides. It’s that consistency, that attention to basics, but also the enjoyment that is so evident when they are playing.
The Sharks are a young team that are getting better and better every week. They are fit, they are focused and they are playing complete and enjoyable rugby. Aside from good results, there seems a good spirit about the Sharks, and its lovely to watch.