DURBAN – In a bygone era, teams travelled to Loftus in the forlorn hope that they could put Naas Botha under pressure, nowadays it is Handre Pollard that opposition teams hope to negate if they are to beat the Bulls.
The Springbok flyhalf has been in sublime form this year and his man-of-the-match performance against the Lions last week at Ellis Park confirmed that the 24-year-old is fast maturing into a rugby great. Sharks assistant coach, Braam van Straaten is in a good place to judge Pollard, having been a Springbok flyhalf himself (21 Tests).
“A while ago I said Handre will go on to be the best flyhalf in the world if he adapted to certain things, and he is starting to do that,” the 47-year-old Van Straaten said. “He is still raw in certain aspects of his game, but he is rapidly taking authority over how the Bulls play and tactically he is very good his kicking out of hand is excellent.
So is his goal-kicking, so we cannot give him penalty opportunities from as far as 60m out.
“We have to put Handre under pressure so that he does not have the opportunity to run things his way.”
But that will require the Sharks’ forwards recovering from the pummelling they received from the Stormers last weekend. The Sharks did not cope with the ensuing pressure and played unintelligent rugby. They also found themselves under pressure from some smart tactical play from the Stormers.
“We got into trouble because we didn’t handle the Stormers’ kicking game well at all,” Van Straaten acknowledged. “There were some judgement errors from senior players.
“We have learned an early lesson in the competition that when the opposition knows you are dominant in defence, as we were in our first two games, they find ways to get behind you The Stormers kicked 33 times. Normally you only get those numbers in the northern hemisphere.”
The pressure told on the Sharks’ discipline, with Lukhanyo Am and Akker van der Merwe sin-binned in the first half.
“Our discipline was not good enough,” Van Straaten said. “The yellow cards put the pack under even further pressure and in terms of work rate, you are under the pump because you are defending with 14 men for a long period of the game. It takes it out of the players.”
Van Straaten said the Sharks had digested their failures against the Stormers and had resolved to move on.
“One loss does not define our season. We are a team building towards something big, we know where we are going,” Van Straaten said. “We will be a different team this week going to Loftus. We know we need to be better at dealing with pressure and also in capitalising when we have teams under pressure, especially in the red zone where you just can’t release the pressure.”
Going back to Botha, Van Straaten said that Super Rugby was not won and lost in round three, just as the Currie Cup was not won and lost in April in the heyday of Botha.
“We have learned so much from this defeat. In short, we have to man up under pressure and then be smart in our game management.”