Brumbies lose Stirling captain

2009-03-27 00:00

The Brumbies were yesterday set back on their heels ahead of their weekend Super 14 game against the Sharks at King’s Park when Wallaby captain and inspirational centre Stirling Mortlock withdrew with injury.

Mortlock, who had apparently been cleared to play on Thursday, failed to complete the Brumbies’ final training session and will miss this evening’s game. Mortlock “corked” his thigh (bleeding in the muscle) in last weekend’s 25-17 loss to the Lions in Johannesburg. Brumbies coach Andy Friend has promoted Gene Fairbanks from the bench to inside centre with Tyrone Smith moving to the outside to replace Mortlock.

The Brumbies were ragged and loose in their finishing a week back when they surprisingly lost to the Lions and they are certain to improve on that showing today.

Sharks coach John Plumtree, for one, is not reading too much into that defeat.

“The Brumbies are a class act with any number of classy plays in their side and it will be very tough,” Plumtree told Weekend Witness yesterday.

“They have a couple of dangerous runners from the back in Mark Gerrard, Adam Ashley-Cooper and Tyrone Smith, and our kicking game will have to be on the button.”

Plumtree said that the length of flyhalf Frans Steyn’s kicking out of hand is an advantage for the Sharks.

“That should push the Brumbies back and then we must just keep our chasing lines.”

But Plumtree also wants to see the Sharks playing more rugby with the ball rather than defending for long periods and relying on the counter-attack to score points.

“We have to achieve more on attack and improve our possession statistics and to do that we must be more accurate in protecting our own ball at the breakdown and then creating some momentum there. They have George Smith [the Wallaby flank], and he is a real nuisance on the ground, but we have been working on a strategy to try and nullify him.”

The Sharks have an excellent home record and have not lost at King’s Park since the Super 14 final in 2007, but the Brumbies reckon that history will again be on their side. Certainly there are several disturbing omens for the Sharks.

In the corresponding Durban game, two years ago, the high-riding Sharks were sitting pretty on a nine-match winning streak and the Brumbies went into the game without Mortlock who had broken his hand a week earlier.

But the Sharks, on the day, fluffed their lines and the Brumbies came away with a 21-10 upset win. Last year, against the Brumbies in Canberra, the Sharks appeared to have the game well won at the break, but they then got right up the nose of the referee and two yellow cards, amid a string of penalties, cost them the match and a home semi-final. That same referee, New Zealander Bryce Lawrence, is back and in charge at King’s Park today.

Sharks captain Johann Muller is not one to dwell on the past but admits he is wary.

“It’s a new year, new teams, new coaches. We will have to play well though, the Brumbies are a really good side, protect the ball well, can take it through 12, 15 phases. They have some really good quality players, and they will be hurting after their loss to the Lions.”

And Muller does not need reminding of what happened in Brisbane a fortnight back when the Sharks went walkabout against an astute, organised Reds side.

“We have to make sure we want it more than them,” said Muller.

Brumbies coach Friend told reporters yesterday that his players are prepared for a frenetic contest against the second-placed Sharks.

“Everything they do is at real pace and with real purpose,” he said. “So it’s going to be a torrid affair against a team just back from tour, and trying to please their home crowd.”

Friend dismissed talk of the Sharks being tired after their four-match tour of the Antipodes.

“Coming back from Perth, sitting in a comfy seat for 12 hours, I don’t think that really fatigues you,” he said.

“It’s a big challenge for us more than anything, given that we lost our last game and we want to prove that we are better than that.”

And all six previous matches played between these two teams in Durban have been determined by margins of 12 points or less. And it could be as close again — unless the Sharks finally unveil their attacking game.

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