Can Sharks tame raging Bulls?

2010-05-01 00:00

THE Sharks may be out of the running for this year’s Super 14 title, but there will be no shortage of desire and ambition when they take on the log-leading Bulls at Loftus tonight.

The Bulls, with a five-point cushion at the top of the log, playing at home and as the defending champions, are the obvious favourites. They have won 16 games on the trot at Loftus and are within touching distance of securing a home semi-final — and they will have the backing of a capacity Loftus crowd weaned on Bulls’ success.

But, as Sharks head coach John Plumtree has pointed out, the Bulls have far more to lose today and the importance of victory and the expectancy of the home support will bring its own pressures.

“It’s disappointing that we are not also challenging for a playoff spot, but we are still looking forward to this clash with the old enemy,” said Plumtree.

While the semi-finals are now only a pipe dream, the Sharks can still prove to be annoying party poopers for both the Bulls and the Stormers, their opponents in Durban next weekend. And the Sharks could prove the most awkward of opponents with a hefty bunch of experienced, bruising forwards who are capable of worrying any pack in the competition.

John Smit’s outfit have also enjoyed remarkable success at Loftus, winning three of their last four Super Rugby games at the bullring since 2002.

“Yeah, our record up there at Loftus is good and we see it as a real challenge,” said Plumtree. “The Bulls and Sharks definitely bring out the best in each other, and it’s going to be pretty physical.”

The Sharks, after the early disappointments of their campaign, are desperate to prove a point against the country’s best. Their forwards, in particular, must be sick and tired of hearing the critics, most based on the Highveld or in Cape Town, singing the praises of the Stormers and Bulls and overlooking the recent form of the Sharks pack in laying the platform for five successive victories.

Tonight they have the chance to shake up South African rugby by beating the Super 14 champions. It will, of course, take a monumental effort and Bulls coach Frans Ludeke says the match will be played in a Test match atmosphere.

“Nobody’s going to give an inch and that will mean a fair amount of tactical kicking and strong defence,” he told reporters.

Ludeke said that the Sharks would come to Loftus knowing they could win — “and that’s half the battle.”

“But we know how to win big matches, and this is one of the biggest.”

While many up-country critics are dismissing the Sharks as a relatively soft touch, the Bulls players do not agree.

“The Sharks are the most physical of our Super 14 opponents,” said captain Victor Matfield, “and we will certainly feel more bruised after this game than any other”.

Sharks captain John Smit said it is no secret his team will look to the strong ball-carrying skills of their powerful forwards to make decisive inroads against the Bulls.

“We have a big pack and we have been using it effectively in recent weeks.”

Plumtree said the Sharks also have to be more clinical on attack.

“Defensively, I was happy at how we held the Auckland Blues, but we have to capitalise on what few scoring chances we get if we are to beat a team as talented as the Bulls.”

There are a number of individual battles to add spice to the evening. The Sharks are hoping to pressure the Bulls in the scrum, but they will struggle against the Springbok lock pairing of Matfield and the returning Bakkies Botha in the lineout.

The head-on collisions between the two muscular backrows and the contest at the breakdown will be intense, while Sharks scrumhalf Ruan Pienaar is looking forward to challenging skilful Springbok Fourie du Preez around the fringes.

The Bulls, of course, have the prolific match-winning Morné Steyn lurking behind the scrum and the Sharks need a powerful showing from their pack if the Springbok flyhalf is to be shaken out of his comfort zone and denied the freedom of Loftus.

The Sharks’ preparations this week have been disrupted by injuries to key forwards, but they will have to settle quickly and make a strong start. Only if they reproduce the cohesion and intensity they have shown in recent weeks, and maintain the effort for 80 minutes, will they contain the Bulls and silence their crowd of blue.

TEAMS

Bulls: 15 Zane Kirchner, 14 Gerhard van den Heever, 13 Jacques-Louis Potgieter, 12 Wynand Olivier, 11 Francois Hougaard, 10 Morné Steyn, 9 Fourie du Preez, 8 Pierre Spies, 7 Dewald Potgieter, 6 Deon Stegmann, 5 Victor Matfield (c), 4 Bakkies Botha, 3 Werner Kruger, 2 Gary Botha, 1 Gurthrö Steenkamp. Replacements: 16 Bandise Maku, 17 Bees Roux, 18 Danie Rossouw, 19 Derick Kuün, 20 Heini Adams, 21 Stephan Dippenaar, 22 Pedrie Wannenburg.

Sharks: 15 Patrick Lambie, 14 Odwa Ndungane, 13 Stefan Terblanche, 12 Riaan Swanepoel, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Andy Goode, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Willem Alberts, 7 Jean Deysel, 6 Jacques Botes, 5 Johann Muller, 4 Steven Sykes, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 John Smit (c). Replacements: 16 Craig Burden, 17 Tendai Mtawarira, 18 Alistair Hargreaves, 19 Keegan Daniel, 20 Rory Kockott, 21 Andries Strauss, 22 Luzuko Vulindlu.

Referee: Jonathan Kaplan (SA). Kickoff: 7.10 pm.

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