Sharks won’t adjust their tempo game for altitude

rugby28 November 2023 12:15
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Ox Nche © Gallo Images

The goals around the Hollywoodbets Sharks’ new high tempo game came to pleasing fruition when they broke down what their Springbok prop Ox Nche referred to as “the dam wall” against Dragons last weekend, but Loftus at the weekend will add a whole new challenge.

The Sharks coach John Plumtree should be as aware as anyone about the possible perils that await in Saturday’s big Vodacom United Rugby Championship derby against the Vodacom Bulls because he has been around the block quite a few times when it comes to the thin air encountered at venues at altitude - both as a player and a coach.

Indeed, when the subject of a team running out of steam on the highveld becomes a discussion point, there is a game that Plumtree was involved in as a coach that readily springs out of the memory bank.

It was 2017, and the Hurricanes arrived in Johannesburg for their semifinal against the Lions as the reigning champions and in a confident mood after putting the Lions away by 50 a few months earlier in a regular season game.

What was different about the league game though compared to the semifinal was that the former was played at night under floodlights, when the impact of altitude isn’t quite as pronounced as it is under the glare of the sun. In the playoff clash played on a sunny June afternoon, the Hurricanes, with Plumtree working as assistant coach to Chris Boyd, the Hurricanes took a vice-like grip on the game early on as their high tempo game left the hosts floundering.

However, although they built up a healthy lead, as the game wore on it was noticeable how the Hurricanes players appeared to be gasping for air. They hadn’t run the Lions off their feet, they’d run themselves off their own feet in the rarified highveld air, and sure enough back the Lions came to win 44-29.


Plumtree said recently that you don’t speak about conditions and altitude in the buildup to a game as it then becomes something that sticks in the players’ minds. So there probably won’t be much reference to the altitude bogey ahead of a game which is taking place at the best time of day for the Bulls if they are to take advantage - mid-afternoon in Pretoria in early summer will sure test the Sharks players lungs.

But now that the Sharks have embraced a high tempo, possession based playing style, it would be reasonable to wonder if there might be an adjustment for this game. Both the DHL Stormers and the Sharks have profited in the past from ‘managing’ their output in Johannesburg and Pretoria over the 80 minutes in matches played there in summer.

According to Nche, there won’t be any adjustments this time, with the Sharks set instead to embrace the entire squad as their way of managing the altitude in this game.

“We won’t be changing anything for Loftus as we have 23 players now in the match day group to get around the impact of the altitude,” said the Bok World Cup winning front-row forward.

“At the Sharks we have pretty much the same attitude as we do at the Boks, meaning that the impact players will play an important role in the game and we will be relying on 23 players. We are playing the Cheetahs away in a few weeks time (in the Challenge Cup) and if we have a problem this week maybe that’s when we will make an adjustment.”

Plumtree said a few weeks back that there was a need for improved fitness so that the intensity of the approach could be sustained over 80 minutes, and it wasn’t quite there yet. At the time he said the Sharks struggled a bit to keep their intensity going from around the 50 minute mark.


However, when he said that it was before the Sharks played Connacht and the Dragons, and in the last mentioned game in particular, the Durban players didn’t appear to have any problems with their fitness levels as they ran away with what at one stage had been a tight game in the last quarter.

“If you look at the games we played before that one, we have been playing exactly the same way, it was just that we needed to get across the line. We expected the dam wall to break at some point and it did this weekend and hopefully we can take that momentum into the next game,” said Nche.

“We know that after winning so well we can’t slip up now, we can’t just think that everything will now just automatically happen for us. We’ve been watching the Bulls and they have been playing amazing rugby. They keep the ball well and they dominate in contact. They will present a complete challenge to us in every area of the game.”

Much has been made of the impact of the returning Boks on the Sharks’ mood, but Nche believes the result on Saturday was as crucial to transforming the team’s confidence levels.

“There was a sense of excitement when we (the Boks) got back and it is even more so this week as now the guys have the belief that comes with winning. They are now believing that what they have been working so hard on in training can win us games, and because what we have been practising has come off. It breeds a massive sense of belief.”