History is on the Sharks’ side

2012-05-05 00:00

THE Sharks are looking to a new beginning — rather than a beginning of the end — when they take on the Highlanders in this evening’s Super Rugby clash at King’s Park.

John Plumtree’s Sharks, with five losses in nine outings, are teetering on the brink of another failed Super Rugby campaign and cannot afford another home loss if they are to stay in contention for the play-offs.

Plumtree is trying a new look to the team as he seeks the consistency that has been missing from their performance all season. He has also selected on form rather than reputation and has rejigged his backline resources.

The 20-year-old Sevens Springbok, Paul Jordaan, joins Tim Whitehead in an exciting midfield, while he has switched JP Pietersen back from centre to wing, and Louis Ludik returns to fullback in place of the patchy Riaan Viljoen.

“Paul has been with us for a while and he knows how we operate,” Plumtree said. “I’m sure he’ll be up for it and it will be a big day for him. Louis has been playing really well on the wing and deserves an opportunity back in his favoured position.”

Plumtree will be hoping that Pietersen’s experiences in the midfield will have rubbed off on the lanky Springbok and he will continue to be more involved both on attack and defence rather than kicking his heels out on the wing.

Cohesion and accuracy could be a problem this evening, but with Springbok wing Lwazi Mvovo over the heavy blow he took to the head against the Chiefs last time out, and Pat Lambie pulling the strings at flyhalf, the Sharks are fielding a young, high-paced backline.

They will need to be on their toes defensively against the eager Highlanders who showed, in scoring 21 points in a flash to beat the Cheetahs last weekend, that they can threaten from anywhere on the field.

Plumtree said the Sharks were aware of the dangers and his players needed to be tactically on the ball.

“We must make sure we kick accurately and chase and contest the high balls. But the Highlanders are more than just a good counter-attacking side. They’re aggressive and experienced up front and [coach] Jamie Joseph has assembled a very good, closely-knit team, which, as we saw against the Cheetahs, will fight to the end.”

The Sharks, with the return of Beast Mtawarira at loosehead to join the Du Plessis brothers — if Jannie is passed fit — will field an all-Bok front-row but it is in the battle on the gainline that will be particularly bruising and decisive.

The Highlanders, with All Black flank Adam Thomson superb at the breakdown, pride themselves on their counter-rucking. Certainly the Sharks’ backrow of Keegan Daniel, Jacques Botes and the in-form young Marcell Coetzee, who was chosen ahead of Willem Alberts and Jean Deysel, face a massive test at the tackle.

Plumtree, in a message aimed at both the Highlanders and referee Steve Walsh, said this week he hoped the New Zealanders, in their counter-rucking, would stay within the laws and not flop over the ball at the breakdown.

Highlanders coach Joseph yesterday made two changes to the side that started against the Cheetahs, with Doug Tietjens playing his second Super Rugby game in place of the suspended English Test flank James Haskell and Siale Piutau selected ahead of wing Buxton Popoali’i.

The Highlanders (34 points) set the early pace in the competition and, with seven wins and two losses, have been far more impressive than the Sharks (27).

But history counts against them and the Sharks have won five games on the bounce against the Highlanders since 2005.

While Plumtree has been talking up the Highlanders this week, Joseph was paying tribute to the Sharks.

“The Sharks are a quality side and ran the Chiefs really close and perhaps should have beaten them,” said Joseph. “They also beat the Blues quite easily and they are a pretty complete team with good strong forwards who are obviously pretty keen for a win. So are we, so it should be a pretty tough battle.”

The Sharks, to the frustration of their coaching staff and supporters, have an annoying habit of waiting until they reach last-chance saloon before they start playing to their potential. And here they are again, back in this familiar, high- pressure situation and desperate to revive their campaign.

Still, if they can reproduce the excellent defence of the recent Chiefs game and complement it with sharper, more accurate finishing, then they will keep their play-off hopes alive. This is one game they should win — simply because they have to.

TEAMS

Sharks: 15 Louis Ludik, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Paul Jordaan, 12 Tim Whitehead, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Patrick Lambie, 9 Charl McLeod, 8 Keegan Daniel (c), 7 Marcell Coetzee, 6 Jacques Botes, 5 Anton Bresler, 4 Steven Sykes, 3 Jannie du Plessis/Wiehahn Herbst, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Tendai Mtawarira

Replacements: 16 Craig Burden, 17 Wiehahn Herbst / Jannie du Plessis, 18 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 19 Jean Deysel, 20 Ryan Kankowski, 21 Frederic Michalak, 22 Meyer Bosman

Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Siale Piutau, 13 Tamati Ellison, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Hosea Gear, 10 Mike Delany, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu, 7 Doug Tietjens, 6 Adam Thomson,

5 Jarrad Hoeata, 4 Josh Bekhuis, 3 Chris King,

2 Andrew Hore, 1 Jamie Mackintosh (c).

Replacements: 16 Jason Rutledge, 17 Ma’afu Fia/Jacob Ellison, 18 Culum Retallick,

19 Elliot Dixon, 20 Jimmy Cowan,

21 Chris Noakes, 22 Kurt Baker

Referee: Steve Walsh (Australia).

Kick-off: 5.05 pm. Curtain-raiser:

Vodacom Cup quarter-final: Sharks XV vs Blue Bulls (2 pm).

Weekend fixtures (home team first,

SA times):

Today:

• Chiefs vs Lions, 9.35 am,

• Brumbies vs Waraths, 11.40 am,

• Sharks vs Highlanders, 5.05 pm,

• Cheetahs vs Force, 7.10 pm.

Tomorrow:

• Crusaders vs Reds, 5 am.

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