SINGAPORE - The Sunwolves learned the hard way at Singapore National Stadium that practice only makes perfect when it is done under conditions that replicate the real thing.
The Japanese Super Rugby franchise may have had the longest preseason in its short history — though still far shorter than the other 14 teams — but the lack of meaningful warm-up games left the team well off the requisite pace as it went down 45-10 to the Durban-based Sharks.
With most of the team’s first-choice players back in Tokyo at a national team training camp, the Sunwolves started brightly enough, getting out to a 10-3 lead. But poor discipline and an inability to compete physically ensured it would be a very long Saturday evening.
By comparison, the Sharks played two very physical games against fellow South African sides the Lions and the Bulls, the latter in conditions very similar to those in Singapore. They were also able — four injuries aside — to largely call on their first-choice team.
Coach Robert du Preez had hoped to complete a “smash and grab” raid, and the Sharks made the most of both their advantages to complete the perfect crime.
“That’s a fair summation of how things went,” Sunwolves assistant coach Scott Hansen said when asked if the differing build-ups were behind the result.
Hansen, in charge until mid-March while head coach Tony Brown is on national team duty, said he was proud of his team’s commitment but admitted there were plenty of lessons to take on board ahead of next week’s clash with the Sydney-based Waratahs in Tokyo.
“The challenge for us is to grow our game so we can operate at a high tempo, and with a high skill set. We didn’t quite get it right tonight, and at times we put ourselves under pressure due to that.”
The stats tell the story, with the Sunwolves penalized 16 times to the Sharks’ seven, while at scrum time the “home” side won five and lost three, to the South Africans’ 14 successful set-pieces.
It was that forward dominance and the Sunwolves’ inability to deal with it that laid the foundations for the win, with hooker Akker van der Merwe bagging a brace of tries and No. 8 Daniel du Preez also scoring from a maul close to the line.
Hansen pointed out that while the scoreline may look bad, the Sunwolves had defended fairly well, making 117 of 129 tackles, with hooker Jaba Bregvadze leading the way with 12, and two turnovers won.
James Moore put in some big hits, as did fellow lock Luke Thompson, but a tendency for the outside man to drift in, and for the midfield to be occasionally duped by decoy runners, ensured the Sharks’ backs were able to pile up the points.
“At times we were not on the same page, but other times we got it beautifully right, and got the ball back through our defense and attacked through it,” said Hansen, who was forced to rearrange his backline early in the second half following a serious-looking injury to Rene Ranger.
Despite six turnovers won to the Sharks’ four, the Sunwolves only managed one try — scored by Shane Gates — as a succession of handling errors and some tenacious defense stopped them in their tracks.
“The Sunwolves are always a tough side to play against because you never know quite what to expect at times, and they really had us in trouble in the first 20 minutes, especially with their defensive line,” said coach du Preez, whose sons contributed 18 points through Daniel’s try and five conversions and a penalty from Robert junior.
But having weathered that early storm, du Preez agreed, it was his side’s dominance at the scrum and line-out that allowed them to make the most of “the opportunities that came along.”
That point was not lost on Sunwolves captain Craig Millar.
“We were under pressure at times, for various reasons, so we need to learn how to handle those different situations better,” said the loosehead prop. “We were up against a very experienced front row and it was a great learning. We’ll work hard to get things right for our next match.”