Fresh Sharks must win

2009-05-01 00:00

The Sharks are looking to a full-strength pack and a makeshift backline to earn them five log points against the Highlanders at King’s Park today and keep them on track for a home Super 14 semi-final.

The Sharks, who did all the hard work at the start of the season with a series of away victories, have lost focus in recent weeks and two successive, unexpected defeats, has left them in a must-win situation for the remaining three rounds.

A week ago, and with a bye to rest tired bodies after 10 Saturdays of intense rugby and travel, head coach John Plumtree was looking forward to fielding his A team against the Highlanders. He was particularly keen to find cohesion and continuity among the backs who have failed to fire as an attacking unit.

Indeed, the fourth-placed Sharks have picked up only three bonus points in 10 games (two for scoring four or more tries) while the third-placed Chiefs, with a win less, have eight bonus points.

The Sharks are certainly not short of attacking talent and have fielded five and sometimes six Boks in their back division.

Plumtree had hoped to finally have a midfield axis of Ruan Pienaar, Frans Steyn and Adi Jacobs at 10, 12 and 13 today. But the shoulder injury to Jacobs, and the decision to start Pienaar off the bench this afternoon after his extended break, has left him with Steyn at flyhalf and a new midfield pairing of Riaan Swanepoel and Andries Strauss.

The two centres are both strong players and committed defenders, but the attacking verve of Jacobs and the playmaking ability of Pienaar, initially anyway, will be missed.

“We’ve got to make sure that the forward pack perform well enough to give the new backline some space. We haven’t been able to play the game we wanted because of disruptions, but you just have to find another way to win. We’ve done it in the past,” said Plumtree.

It has been said often enough that the strongest teams not focussed on the day can be beaten by any other side in the competition and the Sharks have proved it, losing to the two bottom teams (the Reds and the Cheetahs). The Highlanders, in turn, have also shown that their hard-scrummaging pack and lively attack can trouble the best.

“They beat the Bulls comfortably and they edged a side like Crusaders 6-0 so they can slug it out with the best,” said Plumtree. “They can hurt you if you don’t get it right on the day.”

While Plumtree will obviously be concerned about his rejigged backline, he is happy to have his first-choice pack with bruising flank Jean Deysel back from injury to provide the balance and the forward momentum. Bok coach Peter de Villiers will be particularly interested in the Sharks’ front-row of Beast Mtawarira, Bismarck du Plessis and tighthead John Smit and they may well be back at King’s Park on June 20, packing down in the first Test against the British Lions.

Highlanders coach Glenn Moore is looking for a stronger set piece showing from his forwards after they failed to deliver in the defeat by the Stormers last week — “and that put our whole game under pressure,” he said.

With the relatively inexperienced South African Phillip Bosch refereeing today, Moore expressed concerns about the officiating, agreeing with All Black coach Graham Henry’s view that games have become a lottery around the breakdown.

The Highlanders have had to travel from New Zealand after defeat; the Sharks are in their backyard, they have had a week’s break and they are chasing the carrot of a home semi-final. It would be a major disappointment, even with their midfield disruptions, if the Sharks do not come away with a decisive victory today.

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