QUITE rightly much has been made at Kings Park about the recruitment of Springbok drawcards such as Willie Le Roux and Coenie Oosthuizen but perhaps one of the most telling additions to the Sharks set-up is the robust defence coach Omar Mouneimne.
pic by Steve Haag
The Sharks were nothing less than atrocious on defence last year, a major reason why they finished 11th on the log, but anybody who has seen the much-respected Mouneimne conducting venomous sessions at the Shark Tank in pre-season will know that last year’s missed tackle count of 386 is going to be halved in 2016, at least.
Only the Cheetahs missed more tackles in 2015 than the Sharks, who leaked an embarrassing 43 tries.
Mouneimne, a charismatic Capetonian of Lebanese extraction, has a remarkable record across the globe of adding a mixture of mongrel and accuracy to previously ailing defences. He has coached at the Stormers where, in conjunction with Jacques Nienaber, the Cape side were for three consecutive seasons the best defenders in Super Rugby and in the Currie Cup; the Southern Kings in their arguably impressive debut season in Super Rugby in 2013; Edinburgh (with coach Alan Solomons, who took him to the Scottish capital after the Kings were relegated); the Italy national side when Nick Mallett was the coach; and French club Lyon.
Last year he returned to South Africa for personal reasons and worked with the Pumas, who won the Vodacom Cup and were tough to beat in the Currie Cup.
Mouneimne, who is a martial arts expert and in another lifetime brought cage fighting (now Mixed Martial Arts) to the country, cut his teeth as a defence coach with the SA Sevens team, after having made a presentation to coach Paul Treu on how he could transfer his fight skills such as foot movement and grappling to rugby defence.
He was signed up on the spot, and then at Western Province, he underwent a full conversion to rugby coaching under the guidance of then Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus, who he makes a point of thanking for his sage influence.
Mouneimne, a bundle of energy and positivity, told The Mercury that while he had learned not to make lofty promises, this season will see “players defending with pride, physicality, guts, high work rate and trust in each other.”
While he is loathe to criticise the 2015 defence coach (Michael Horak, who has since left), he says certain observations were clear to all.
“The first-up tackling was not being made which allowed the opposition to get quick ball, and then you are going backwards the whole time, and then you are going to concede tries,” he says. “It is vital that you deny the opposition quick ball and that you are effective in your first-time hits, otherwise the whole defensive system is compromised.”
In the pre-season, Mouneimne has focused on improved conditioning, tackle technique and increasing aggression in the tackle.
“You have more tackle guts and ability to get up and make more tackles when you are fit,” he says. “That is why our defence sessions are so intense. The players know that these sessions are going to be game related, and then some. There is no pussy-footing around. You have to mirror the intensity and pace of Super Rugby. What is the point of a defence session where the players leave with a false sense of security?
“The players are responding extremely well but there is not going to be a miraculous change overnight. I know the fans are frustrated but I am certain there will be incremental improvement,” he added with a wry smile that suggested that privately he will settle for nothing less than dramatic improvement.
Mouneimne, whose name is of French-Arabic origin, is that type of coach. He does not stuff around.
But allied to his no-frills approach is a keen appreciation of the technicalities of the game.
“Intelligent, accurate kicking is a vital part of defence,” he says. “It is an area of the game where the New Zealanders have made vast strides (in fact, since they addressed this area after the Boks beat the All Blacks three games in a row in 2009 with a brilliant kicking game.)
“Do you know that last year’s Super Rugby finalists, the Highlanders and Hurricanes, kicked 18 000 and 16 000m respectively, while the Sharks clocked up just 8000m?” Mouneimne observed. “And when the Sharks were smashed by the Crusaders at Kings Park (by 50 points), one of the chief reasons was because the Sharks’ exit kicking game was poor. And at the same time, when the Crusaders kicked, they were extremely accurate and the Sharks players often could not deal with it and lost the aerial battles.”
Quite obviously, the Sharks have made “contestable kicks”, both in delivering them and receiving them, a major focus.
Mouneimne’s final word to the fans is as unambiguous as any tackle he hopes to see from his players.
“Talk is cheap. The hard work has been put in but the pride in the jersey we are looking for in the tackle can only be judged when we start playing.”
The Sharks’ first game is away to Mouneimne ‘s old team, the Kings, on February 27.
By Mike Greenaway
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