It’s playoff spot or nothing tonight

2012-07-06 00:00

THE Sharks, hit by injury but happy to be back at King’s Park, will be again be teetering on the brink of failure when they face the Bulls in their Super Rugby derby tonight.

The Sharks were in a similar situation in mid-season when they returned from their tour of the Antipodes with little chance of reaching the playoffs. But four successive wins, including one at home to the Stormers, revived their campaign. Sadly, just a week later, they somehow contrived to provide the Lions with a rare win at Ellis Park and the Sharks are now back in a bundle of teams battling for a play-off spot.

The Sharks return to action today after their month’s break but missing three influential members in playmaker Pat Lambie, bone-breaker Willem Alberts and their most experienced lock in Steven Sykes.

They are also bumping a Bulls team crowded with 14 Springboks, past and present, and buoyant after running up 40 points against the Cheetahs a week back.

Buls Coach Frans Ludeke has spent the week reminding his players that it was the Sharks who ended the Bulls’ Super Rugby challenge in the final round last year.

“There is a lot at stake,” he said. “Both teams will be desperate to win and that’s what makes it such a special game. It’s always physical when we play the Sharks but it is also about the basics and small things will make the difference on Friday night.”

Ludeke is looking to his Springbok lineout — locks Juandre Kruger and Flip van der Merwe, along with Pierre Spies at the tail — to provide the Bulls with a decisive edge over the young and inexperienced Sharks’ jumpers.

The Sharks, in turn, are hoping their all-Bok Test front-row of the Du Plessis brothers and Beast Mtawaraira will provide them with some control in the scrums.

Plumtree says lessons were learnt by the Sharks when they lost, frustratingly, by a couple of points in the first-round clash in Pretoria.

“They put us under pressure and our discipline wasn’t good enough on the day,” he said. “We now need to turn that around.”

The Sharks coach said he had been taken by the form the Bulls pack had shown against the Chiefs, Stormers and then the Cheetahs last week.

“They’ve been excellent with their driving lineout and they’ve been clinical. Winning ball is not really a problem for them. They strangle the life out of you. They win the territory battle and their possession stats are right up there as well. We have to turn that around somehow and that’s what we’ve been working on this week.” He said no motivation will needed for this game.

“When it is over one the teams will be in or out [of play-off contention].”

Overcoming the four-week break would also be a problem with the Sharks, having a bye last Saturday when the Bulls had a chance to shake the rust against the Cheetahs.

“I’m personally not in favour of this long break,” said Plumtree. “The competition is at a crucial stage and then to have a break like this … Last week we saw a lot of rusty rugby from the teams who were going well before the June recess. Look at the Crusaders who lost at home, that’s pretty unheard of. We also had two Boks returning from the England series with injuries and that hasn’t helped.

“But that’s the draw and we have to just get on with it.”

Plumtree said there would still be twists and turns to the competition in the final fortnight.

“But it is important to focus on winning this weekend and then we can see where we stand before the final round.”

The Sharks will miss the bang-and-crash rugby of Alberts and the refined talents of Lambie, but Keegan Daniel and company have in recent years saved their most effective rugby for the Bulls.

And they will have to do so again tonight if their Super Rugby challenge is not to end prematurely — and turn the final home game against the Cheetahs next week into a meaningless contest.

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