Sharks: Can Neil Powell align the stars for success in Durban?

Sharks stars Siya Kolisi and Lukhanyo Am talk during a game. Credit: Alamy
Sharks stars Siya Kolisi and Lukhanyo Am talk during a game. Credit: Alamy

The final weeks of 2022 were stages of evolution for the Sharks, who have undergone so much change in recent times.

Since the club was bought by new owners, there has been an influx of serious superstars, including Siya Kolisi, Eben Etzebeth, Bongi Mbonambi, Ox Nche, Vincent Tshituka and others.

However, it was not smooth sailing for the Durban men, who at times failed to capitalise on their superior squad. Granted, a lot of the time, their stars were on international duty, but the failure to produce results on their return resulted in marching orders for former coach Sean Everitt who left his role at the end of November.

Director of rugby and legendary Blitzboks coach Neil Powell took on the hot seat after Everitt’s departure with aplomb, leading the Sharks to five consecutive wins.

Those victories included a 39-31 triumph against Harlequins in the Sharks‘ Champions Cup debut, an away win against Bordeaux and a 47-20 demolition of the Bulls last weekend.

So what has changed since Powell took charge in Durban?

Managing the stars

For much of Everitt’s time in charge this season, he had to do without his stars but failed to produce when they returned. One could speculate that managing some of the biggest stars of the game proved too much for a good coach but one without the experience of dealing with such personalities.

Powell is vastly experienced at the highest level and is easily the best sevens coach South Africa has produced. With that comes a presence and security, something for players to lean on and trust.

The next step was to integrate the Springboks fully, and Powell had little choice, with few being rested and the remaining players straight in.

What came of this was one of the most powerful packs in club rugby. A full Bok front-row in Nche, Mbonambi and Thomas du Toit. Etzebeth in the second-row with Bok skipper Kolisi and talented stars such as Tshituka, Phepsi Buthelezi and others in the back-row. It truly is a forwards coach’s dream.

Their set-piece has skyrocketed with their scrum particularly looking as venomous as it did during the days of Tendai Mtawarira, Bismarck du Plessis and Jannie du Plessis. Possibly even more powerful, in fact.

Forward and set-piece dominance is a fundamental aspect of engineering a way to win a rugby match. However, what makes the Sharks even more deadly are the men in the backline.

Balance in the backs

Under Everitt, the backline never looked balanced, and again he did not have Springboks available, and the injury to Lukhanyo Am did no one favours.

Regardless, Rohan Janse van Rensburg has to play inside centre. Playing the incredibly powerful star at 13 is a waste and was one of the imbalances in the backline. Powell had the luxury of Am’s return, but the impact of Janse van Rensburg at 12 was immediate.

This centre pairing has already sent shockwaves through both competitions the Sharks feature in. They will only get better and gel more. Expect the Janse van Rensburg-Am combination to soar to some impressive heights over the remainder of the season.

Scrum-half is a strong point for the Sharks, who have two Boks in Jaden Hendrikse and Grant Williams in the ranks. Powell can take his pick whether he wants vision or sheer pace.

Fly-half was more of a concern, although Boeta Chamberlain did establish himself fairly well there. However, with Aphelele Fassi injured, Chamberlain has been playing full-back and Curwin Bosch at 10. This has been a blessing for Bosch, who shared responsibilities with his teammates and plays with far less pressure, bringing more out of him.

It will be fascinating to see what happens when Fassi returns, as Chamberlain is arguably the more complete playmaker.

Makazole Mapimpi has started scoring again and needs a good run of form to fight off the competition from Kurt-Lee Arendse in the Bok set-up. He will appreciate the return of Am as the pair have incredible chemistry.

Bright future

The Sharks have turned the corner, and the energy is tangible. They have a world-class squad – one of the best in the world – and a coach who has started brilliantly.

If the men from Durban can build a winning culture and keep raising their standards, stopping them will be like trying to stop a freight train. One gets the feeling success will inevitably come the Sharks’ way.

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