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Sharks have defied ‘superstar tight-five’ trend


Rob Houwing – Sport24 chief writer

It’s a tried
and trusted belief that the key to rugby success, a principle especially
applicable in the international arena, so often begins in the front-five boiler
room.

History
shows, too, that a big-name collective of ironmen in that department represent a
significant attribute on the route to glory in the southern hemisphere’s
franchise-level pride and joy of Super Rugby.

But while
the Sharks had plenty of work to do yet in their gallant charge toward maiden title
success – they were overall log-leaders very close to the midway point of
ordinary season when the coronavirus cripplingly intervened – there is a good
case for arguing that they’ve been bucking the trend to an intriguing degree in
2020.

Just think
about it: how many of their current, first-choice tight five are either close
to first-choice status at Test level for the world champion Springboks, or even
deemed candidates yet, in some cases, for maiden exposure?

Of the front
five who both began the campaign against the Bulls and were still coach Sean
Everitt’s preferred alliance in their last game before the shutdown against the
Stormers at Kings Park (Ruben van Heerden and Hyron Andrews at lock; Ox Nche,
Kerron van Vuuren and Thomas du Toit in the front row), only the versatile Du
Toit was among the broader squad who won the World Cup in Japan late last year.

The “Tank
Engine” hadn’t been an initial pick, either: mastermind Rassie Erasmus only
summoned him after Trevor Nyakane tore a calf in game one against New Zealand
at Yokohama, and he wasn’t in the match-day 23 for the memorable final against
England.

It is
probably fair to say that Du Toit remains behind all of Frans Malherbe, Vincent
Koch and Nyakane in the Bok tighthead pecking order, and that he has a better
chance of higher status on the loosehead side of the scrum – where he was once
a more regular feature for the Sharks – as one of the Test understudies to
Steven Kitshoff.

As for Nche,
he remains only a one-cap Springbok, having made his debut in the dubious, very
experimental once-off clash with Wales in Washington DC right at the start of
Erasmus’s tenure in mid-2018.

Hooker Van
Vuuren, meanwhile, continues to make decent strides in Super Rugby but most
pundits would have him behind all of Malcolm Marx, Bongi Mbonambi, Akker van
der Merwe – and also Scarra Ntubeni and Joseph Dweba? – at this point.

The Sharks
lock partners, too, remain in the unfortunate position of being stuck behind
(as things stand, anyway) a battery of customary, high-calibre second-rowers on
the Springbok scene — whether home-based or, in most cases, abroad.

All of these
observations don’t mean the Sharks’ front five should be undervalued: far from
it.

Considering
that the oldest among them are Du Toit and Van Vuuren, both of whom have 25th
birthdays looming in May, there is plentiful time available yet for all to beef
up their credentials for higher honours, and to similarly increase their menace
as a group.

Yet the
Sharks set-piece, whether scrum or lineout, is perhaps best described as respectable
and tenacious rather than genuinely dominating, when weighed against certain rival
collectives both domestically and tournament-wide.

Probably the
most pleasing things about the Durban-based tight five have been their mobility,
fitness, ball skills and general, enthusiastic buy-in to the Sharks’ greatest hallmark
this season: an ability to spark turnovers in a flash and to strike for tries
even from very deep areas on the park.

Nobody can
say with any certainty that the KwaZulu-Natalians were (or are, if the
competition sees further light) headed compellingly to first-time overall
trophy success in 2020, as many bends in the road remained unnegotiated.

But if they
were to pull it off, they’d do it with one of the less steely — by prior
reputation — front fives than possessed by most others who have either landed
the title or gone extremely close to doing so in recent years.

Just for
illustration, the Crusaders who advanced to their 10th title last
year, sported four mostly decorated All Blacks in their tight five who began
the final against the Jaguares: Sam Whitelock, Joe Moody, Codie Taylor and Owen
Franks.

When South
Africa’s own Lions went to the first of three successive tournament showpieces
in 2016, their front five had three figures who would all represent South
Africa that year: Marx, Franco Mostert and Julian Redelinghuys, plus substitute
hooker Van der Merwe who would be Bok-capped two years later.

The last
title-winning SA side, the Bulls of 2010 (who beat the Stormers in the Orlando
Stadium final), had a starting front five entirely made up of Springboks: Victor
Matfield and Danie Rossouw at lock, and a front row comprising Werner Kruger
(picked for the Bok end-of-year tour), Gary Botha and Gurthro Steenkamp.

So the
present Sharks may well be in a process of altering some perceptions …

*Follow
our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing …





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