The 'spy-versus-spy' games at Kings Park
It has become common for coaches and players to face off against their country of birth.
However, Kings Park in Durban on Saturday will have a ‘spy’ in both camps when the Sharks host Connacht in a United Rugby Championship Round 17 crunch match.
The visitors have in their camp Dewald Meyer Senekal – who was born in Uitenhage, South Africa, and is currently the forwards coach of the Irish province, Connacht.
In his playing career, Senekal played as a No.8 for Bayonne, Agen and Toulon in France.
He also played for the Cheetahs and Lions in his native South Africa, before moving to the Northern Hemisphere in 2009.
The Sharks attack coach Noel McNamara has moved the other way – from Ireland to South Africa.
The former Leinster academy manager, who was also the coach of the Ireland Under-20 team from 2018 to 2020, is in charge of the offence and backs for the Sharks.
Needless to say, Connacht is well aware of his skill and standards.
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“That is one of the beauties of the game,” Connacht senior coach Peter Wilkins told a virtual meeting in the build-up to Saturday’s showdown, adding: “You go all around the world and bump into somebody you either coached with or coached against.”
He added that McNamara would know a lot of the Connacht players.
“I have had some really interesting rugby conversations with him,” Wilkins told the media briefing.
“He is a coach a lot of us have enormous respect for.
“It is great to see him getting out of his comfort zone and heading overseas.”
Wilkins said it would be a “fantastic experience” to front up to his compatriot.
“We are looking forward to testing ourselves against him.
“Cullie Tucker, our defence coach, worked with him before at Ireland Under-20 level and they know each other really well.
“For Cullie to pit his wits against Noel’s attacking plans – the moves, the plays and look for trends he might be familiar with – it adds to the excitement and intrigue of the encounter.”
Connacht lock Gavin Thornbury, who described the Sharks as a massive set-piece team and a side that also has some threats in the backs, touched on the intrigue of the ‘spy-versus-spy’ scenario.
The 28-year-old, who has had limited game time (just 125 minutes from three appearances) due to a long-term shoulder injury, has spent plenty of time with the South African while recovering from his injury.
He also touched on the role that the South African, Senekal, played in the build-up to the tour and the input he gave about his countrymen.
“It is a big challenge for us,” he said of facing a Sharks pack that includes an all-Springbok front row and World Cup-winning Bok skipper Siyamthanda Kolisi.
“You have to be pretty perfect in every set piece,” the second row forward said, adding: “You can’t shy away from it.
“You have to run into it headfirst. That is exactly what we are going to do.”
Connacht snapped a four-game winning run for the Lions at Ellis Park last Saturday, making them only the second team from the Northern Hemisphere to win a URC match on South African soil.
Wilkins, who won a Super Rugby medal in 2015 as a performance analyst with the Reds, hopes the Durbanites’ playoff aspirations will serve as a distraction for this weekend’s encounter at Kings Park.
“We are definitely aware of the context and the nice thing is the more opposition teams are under pressure [to qualify for the playoffs], the more it potentially plays to the opponents,” the Connacht assistant coach said.
However, the Sharks have enough skills and power to overcome the Connacht threat.
“When approaching teams with X-factor, it is important not to give those players any one-on-ones, and maintain those connections in defence,” Wilkins said.
“We must get numbers around the ball, and numbers around the attacker.
“They got an electrifying back three with pace and power, and who can certainly tear teams apart.
“Yet] the Sharks are a powerful team built on a strong set piece, and will be more comfortable taking that route – when it hasn’t clicked on attack, they’ll look to their maul and kicking game.
“Not many teams have also managed sustained periods of attack against the Sharks. It’s an interesting challenge of the blend of structured and unstructured play.”