High altitude, high stakes

2012-10-06 00:00

THE Sharks could take a massive step towards hosting a Currie Cup semi-final, and possible final, by beating the desperate Free States Cheetahs in Bloemfontein tonight.

The Sharks have a five-point advantage over the third-placed Western Province and they will be confident of beating Griquas in Durban when they complete their round robin programme next weekend.

And, if the table-topping Golden Lions stumble against either Griquas in Kimberley this afternoon, or to the Blue Bulls (with their returning Springboks) at Ellis Park next weekend, then the Sharks could achieve their goal of heading the log entering the play-offs. But first they have to take care of the Free Staters and their record playing away, and at altitude, should concentrate their minds wonderfully, with defeats in Pretoria, Kimberley and Johannesburg disrupting their Currie Cup campaign. The Sharks have in recent years put to bed the talk of a Cheetahs hoodoo, but the Free State Stadium remains a testing venue for all visiting teams, as Sharks backline coach Grant Bashford conceded this week. “Yes, we’ve turned the tables recently on them, but it is a tough place to play. They’re good at home, their mindset is to move the ball around there and they offer threats all over with the style of rugby they play.” He said that the Sharks would have to maximise their scoring opportunities and retain possession.

“They love turn over ball and they have the players, like Raymond Rhule [wing] and Sarel Pretorius [scrumhalf] that can hurt you with it. We have to be accurate when we have the ball and then work hard on defence and take care of them when they attack.”

The comings and goings this week favour the Sharks, with Springbok wing JP Pietersen returning to action after a two-month break, while the Free Staters have lost their most effective loose forward in Test flank Heinrich Brüssow. Pietersen was in sublime form in Super Rugby before fracturing his thumb in the August final and the Sharks will be delighted if he can pick up where he left off.

The Sharks should have a critical edge in their more settled forward pack led by the inspirational Keegan Daniel and this should allow them to play their high tempo game.

But the stakes could scarcely be higher for the fourth-placed Cheetahs and they will be frantic. A win tonight will take them into a semi-final contention; a home defeat will leave them staring at the possibility of a relegation game at the end of the season. The Sharks have beaten the Cheetahs three times this year (twice in Super Rugby and then in the home Currie Cup game) and they again have the team to win today.

But Sharks supporters will not need reminding that it is about this time of a competition that their team, progressing smoothly but away from the comforts of King’s Park, have a tendency to suddenly go walkabout.

The Sharks players will have been reminded about the dangers all week, but we will only know later tonight if they have been listening to their coaching staff.

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