At times at Newlands on Saturday, writes Tank Lanning in his eNCA.com column, it actually looked like men vs boys, such was the physical beating dished out by the men in black.
The image of Demetri Catrakilis lying prostrate on the ground after being steam rolled by both Pieter-Steph du Toit and Bismarck du Plessis speaks exactly to what happened at Newlands on Saturday evening. The big bruising Sharks arrived in Cape Town and bullied the Currie Cup from Western Province. At times it actually looked like men vs boys, such was the beating dished out by the men in black.
I thought returning Boks Beast Mtawarira, Jannie du Plessis and Willem Alberts, all returning fairly early from injury, and having been through long seasons, might have been a little jaded. Boy, was I wrong. And together with the physicality of Du Toit and the bulky Francois Steyn (especially on defence early on in the game), the blunt force trauma approach that Bok coach Heyneke Meyer employs with these chunks of meat at his disposal, worked a charm against a WP side who seemed to deviate from what has worked so well for them this year.
That said, it is pretty damn difficult to get your outside backs into the game when the opposition use an in your face physical umbrella type defence that forces you into using the boot just to try and make some headway on attack. And when said use of boot sends the ball directly down the opposition throat (SP Marais was outstanding in his positioning, and backed up very well by his loose forwards and wings), you find yourself up the preverbal creek, sans paddle!
It was classic Stormers strategy, executed to a tee. Oh the irony!
WP did make things very difficult for themselves by completely fluffing their lines come lineout and kick in time, though. Instead of using quick throws to Eben Etzebeth at the front, or well timed lobbed balls to Duane Vermeulen at the back – calls that have worked so well for them this year, they seemed to try and over complicate this facet of play. Du Toit had a field day poaching lineout ball, something that no doubt fuelled his confidence in a display that makes him a no brainer for a start on the Bok end of year tour.
And in the kick ins, a true basic of the modern game given that every variation is practiced ad nauseam at training, instead of the man coming from deep to take the ball going forward, Damien de Allende seemed to let the occasion get to him, often calling for the ball while going backwards. The end result being the Sharks with ball in hand in the WP half … Again.
The Sharks executed a well thought out game plan perfectly on the day, and even if WP had played better, I am not sure they would have had enough to get past a team that, with their Boks back in the mix, would push for a World Cup semi final spot.
Credit must also go to new CEO John Smit and director of rugby Brendan Venter. Both have clearly benefitted from a culture at Saracens that they believe in. A culture that both have told me, on separate occasions, that they want to instil at Kings Park. Rotating players in order to build squad depth in a well-orchestrated, and perhaps more importantly, well-communicated way, is an example of such a culture. As is the flying of every single squad member who had played a part in the season, even though not part of the final squad on Saturday, to Cape Town for the game.
Jake White must be pondering the size of Venter’s shoes!