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Playing to your strengths

The final log positions in the South African Super Rugby conference this year show just how crucial physical dominance is to success.

The two derbies to end the regular season summed things up quite well – with the Lions running the Cheetahs ragged to secure their best-ever finish of 12th overall with seven wins, whilst the Sharks ground the Stormers down in a brutal clash at Newlands to finish a full 12 points clear of their nearest local challengers the Bulls.

The Durban side will carry South African hopes alone in the play-offs, and they will do it playing the physically and territorially suffocating style of rugby that has characterised successful teams from this country in recent years.

There is not much of a secret to the Jake White gameplan which was executed perfectly at Newlands on Saturday, prompting the World Cup-winning Bok coach to declare that their primary goal in the play-offs will be to simply recreate that performance.

They pinned the Stormers back with the booming boot of Frans Steyn and forced the home side to play from their own half, and a massive defensive effort saw them hold out under incredible pressure before taking advantage of a few key counter-attacking opportunities to run away with the game.

It is a sequence that has been seen many times before, and the groundwork was laid by a big performance up front by a committed forward pack that was solid in the set phases and slowed the Stormers' ball down effectively to shut them out.

This approach has made the Sharks the most consistent South African team this season, and although the clash at Ellis Park on Saturday provided plenty of thrills neither of those sides will be playing next week.

That physical edge that the Sharks have had has been key to any South African side that has finished a Super Rugby season near the top of the standings, and has always been a non-negiotable aspect of the Springboks' game.

This does not mean that every team should play exactly like the Sharks, but there is no denying that their success this season underlines just how important physical dominance is in South African rugby.

While there is far more to winning rugby games than just imposing yourself on the opposition it is clear that not many games are won off the back foot in this country, which matters far more than worrying about people calling you boring.

By Michael de Vries


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