Gold is hoping for the best

2015-04-11 00:00

THE Sharks, on a wing, a prayer and no form, face the enterprising and flourishing Lions at Ellis Park this evening and not even coach Gary Gold will have the foggiest how his charges will respond to the challenge.

The Sharks, strong on paper and flimsy on grass, plunged their supporters into the most abject misery with their tame surrender against the Crusaders last week.

Today they appear far weaker and less experienced than they were against the Crusaders and half that team — well, seven of them — have either been suspended, injured, rested or dropped. They will have their fourth captain, lock Marco Wentzel, in nine games with Bismarck du Plessis, Jean Deysel and now Pat Lambie having come and gone before him.

The most damaging setback is the loss of playmaker Lambie, but they are now also without their all-Test front-row (props Beast Mtawarira and Jannie du Plessis are on a forced Springbok break and Gold is grumpy about it) and their backrow has been rejigged while their backline has yet to play with any fluency and has limitations.

But it is their mental state, their commitment to the cause, which will decide whether we are in for another evening of humiliation for the Sharks or a tight contest. Just a week back Gold thought his players, stung by their poor showing against the Force, were ready and willing to front up to the Crusaders. But he misread their mood and their readiness, and his Sharks were buried without trace.

He is again hoping that the players “show some character and step up to the plate” but he had expressed similar sentiments the week before and his players failed him.

The Sharks know exactly what to expect from the Lions this evening. Johan Ackermann’s charges will run and run, using the width of the field, strong supporting play and quick off-loads to stretch the Sharks’ defence. And unless the Sharks are switched on tonight, and they are prepared to make their tackles and hold their defensive lines, they will again suffer.

The Lions are without the big-name players of the other franchises but under Ackermann and Swys de Bruin they have developed into a highly effective, happy and tightly-knit unit.

Backrowers, captain Warren Whiteley and Warwick Tecklenburg, head the Super Rugby tackle count and most of their games have been close-run affairs — their last four wins have been by less than five points — which underlines their desire to succeed and fight to the final bell. These qualities, their solid setpiece and their improved defence, helped them pip the Bulls on the final hooter last week, less than two hours after the Sharks went “hens-op” to the Crusaders in Durban.

The Lions, determined to go into next weekend’s bye with that winning feeling, have every reason to be excited about this outing and are looking for just their second success in 12 Super Rugby games against the Sharks. They won three matches on their overseas travels before trumping the Bulls and they will fancy their chances against a disjointed Sharks defence which leaked eight tries against the Crusaders.

The depleted and battered Sharks are fielding a second-string pack missing their most physical players — among them four Springbok tight forwards — while the young Fred Zeilinga, still to find his feet at this level, is running the show from flyhalf.

The Sharks, to be frank, are in crisis; the Lions are close to their best and are enjoying the ride. All the indications — form, consistency, discipline and confidence — are in their favour and, of course, they are playing at home.

The Sharks revamped front-row will be under pressure in the scrums and they will be looking to new hooker Franco Marais to succeed where Kyle Cooper failed and find his lineout jumpers.

There are some fitness doubts surrounding Ryan Kankowski (knee injury) but he will travel with the team. The Sharks’ often confused game plan has done little for Kankowski’s natural attacking game but the rangy number eight has been a valuable source of lineout possession and that element of his game would be missed. Either Etienne Oosthuizen or Springbok Willem Alberts, both returning to the bench from extended injury breaks, will start if Kankowski is a late withdrawal.

There are other critical changes to the Sharks’ line-up, some born of desperation, some of necessity. Veteran Odwa Ndungane gets an airing at fullback and S’bura Sihole, after a long injury, returns on the wing. Zeilinga has a pivotal role to play and there are new combinations at loose forward and in the front row. They will have little time to settle.

The Sharks, if they are to challenge, have to secure their first-phase possession, close down the Lions’ space and make their tackles. They have to keep cutting down the Lions behind the advantage line to remain in contention. It will be all about intensity and commitment. And, if the Sharks need an example of what courage and character can achieve in the face of adversity, they need look no further than their opponents today, the unheralded Lions.

The heavy defeat of last Saturday has obviously dulled expectations among Sharks supporters and they will be preparing for the worst. Those who expect little are rarely disappointed and at least they will be spared the pain of last weekend. And, if there is a surprise tonight, it will be a most pleasant one.

It is time the real Sharks stood up and showed that there is still pride in the jersey and their individual performance. It is, really, about all they have ­going for them this evening.

Teams

Lions: 15. Andries Coetzee, 14. Ruan Combrinck, 13. Lionel Mapoe, 12. Harold Vorster, 11. Mark Richards, 10. Elton Jantjies, 9. Faf de Klerk, 8. Warren Whiteley (c), 7. Warwick Tecklenburg, 6. Jaco Kriel, 5. Franco Mostert, 4. Andries Ferreira, 3. Julian Redelinghuys, 2. Robbie Coetzee, 1. Jacques van Rooyen. Substitutes: 16. Armand van der Merwe, 17. Corne Fourie, 18. Ruan Dreyer, 19. Robert Kruger, 20. Derick Minnie, 21. Lohan Jacobs, 22. Marnitz Boshoff, 23. Howard Mnisi

Sharks: 15. Odwa Ndungane, 14. S’bura Sithole, 13. Waylon Murray, 12. Andre Esterhuizen, 11. Lwazi Mvovo, 10. Fred Zeilinga, 9. Cobus Reinach, 8. Ryan Kankowski, 7. Renaldo Bothma, 6. Marcell Coetzee, 5. Marco Wentzel (c), 4. Mouritz Botha, 3. Lourens Adriaanse, 2. Franco Marais, 1. Dale Chadwick. Substitutes: 16. Monde Hadebe, 17. Thomas du Toit, 18. Matt Stevens, 19. Etienne Oosthuizen, 20. Willem Alberts, 21. Conrad Hoffmann, 22. Lionel Cronje, 23 Jack Wilson

Fixtures

Crusaders v Highlanders, 9.35 am

Waratahs v Stormers, 11.40 am

Force v Cheetahs, 1.45 pm

Lions v Sharks, 5.05 pm

Bulls v Reds, 7.10 pm

P W D L PF PA PD BPts Pts

Hurricanes 7 7 0 0 192 102 90 3 31

Brumbies 8 5 0 3 187 99 88 5 25

Bulls 7 4 0 3 186 166 20 3 19

Chiefs (Q) 8 6 0 2 198 145 53 4 28

Highlanders (Q) 6 4 0 2 138 116 22 4 20

Crusaders (Q) 7 4 0 3 214 141 73 3 19

Sharks 8 4 0 4 170 201 -31 3 19

Waratahs 6 4 0 2 144 108 36 2 18

Stormers 7 4 0 3 167 157 10 1 17

Lions 8 4 0 4 118 168 -50 1 17

Rebels 7 3 0 4 135 156 -21 3 15

Cheetahs 7 2 0 5 134 233 -99 1 9

Blues 8 1 0 7 134 178 -44 5 9

Force 7 1 0 6 109 161 -52 4 8

Reds 7 1 0 6 71 166 -95 2 6

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