May the best pack win

2012-03-17 00:00

THE Sharks will have to be at their sharpest, mentally and physically, if they are to have any chance of toppling the unbeaten Super Rugby champions, the Queensland Reds, at King’s Park this evening.

The Reds, without the creative Wallaby Quade Cooper at flyhalf and astutely coached by the streetwise Ewen McKenzie, have been conservative in their approach this season, grinding out three successive victories.

The Sharks have played well only in patches and they will be punished by the Reds if they blow hot and cold — as they did against the Lions last Saturday — or if they continue to infringe at the breakdown.

Both McKenzie and Sharks coach John Plumtree were yesterday talking up the Reds, who beat the Crusaders in last year’s final to take the title.

“We’re not far away from playing well,” McKenzie told reporters. “I know people are questioning where we are at the moment. I think it is a bit of a giggle because we’re way better than we were at this time last year.

“We’re competitive without being brilliant. Our best rugby is ahead of us so we’re not stressing. We’re looking forward to playing the Sharks. We know we are going to have a really good game at some point and hopefully it’s this weekend.”

Plumtree knows a dramatic Sharks improvement is needed.

“We will have to work really hard. The Reds are a championship side, a very confident side, a winning side,” he said.

While McKenzie might be satisfied with the progress of his team, he has still made six changes for this evening’s game and revamped his backline. The introduction of playmaker Ben Lucas at flyhalf is clearly an attempt to increase the tempo of play, Rod Davies, the fastest player in the squad, is at fullback, and Wallaby Digby Ioane is a major threat on the wing.

But the Sharks’ biggest challenge will be in the lineout and in containing the Reds’ multi-phase play. McKenzie has stacked his lineout with tall men and the Sharks, missing the injured Ross Skeate and Alistair Hargreaves, are short of specialist jumpers.

The Reds are also experts at creating pressure by patiently taking the ball through the phases and they have their prolific goalkicker Mike Harris at inside centre (rather than flyhalf) to punish the Sharks’ seemingly inevitable infringements at the breakdowns.

“They are a very traditional South African side, very physical upfront,” Reds captain and lock James Horwill said of the Sharks. “They like to dominate with the ball carrier and hit the breakdown hard. We are ready for that physical battle upfront.”

One of the sideshows tonight will be provided by the two biggest men on the field, Sharks flank Willem Alberts and Radike Samo, the Reds’ Fijian number eight. Both weigh 118 kilograms and the clashes on the gainline will be bruising.

Alberts, back from an extended injury break, said he enjoyed his return against the Lions.

“I’m feeling good, but I would like to be better against the Reds.

“The Reds are a championship side, but it is the team with the best forwards that usually wins these games. It is a big match-up for the two teams and both packs are looking forward to the contest.”

The talk in the Reds’ camp is that a win over the Sharks, at a difficult venue where they have lost their last three games, would be a major boost in their campaign to retain the title.

The Sharks, in turn, leave on their four-match tour of Australia and New Zealand tomorrow, and victory would be the perfect going-away present.

Plumtree has all week emphasised the importance of the players maintaining their focus and not looking beyond the fierce physical battle tonight. Only their very best will be good enough to beat the champions.

TEAMS

Sharks: 15 Riaan Viljoen, 14 Odwa Ndungane, 13 JP Pietersen, 12 Tim Whitehead, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Patrick Lambie, 9 Charl McLeod, 8 Keegan Daniel (c), 7 Willem Alberts, 6 Marcell

Coetzee, 5 Anton Bresler, 4 Steven Sykes, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Dale Chadwick.

Replacements: 16 Craig Burden, 17 Wiehahn Herbst, 18

Jandre Marais, 19 Jacques Botes, 20 Frederic Michalak, 21 Meyer Bosman, 22 Louis Ludik.

Reds: 15 Rod Davies, 14 Dom Shipperley, 13 Ben Tapuai, 12 Mike Harris, 11 Digby Ioane, 10 Ben Lucas, 9 Will Genia, 8 Radike Samo, 7 Beau Robinson, 6 Scott Higginbotham, 5 Van Humphries, 4 James Horwill (c), 3 James Slipper, 2 James Hanson, 1 Greg Holmes.

Replacements: 16 Saia Faingaa, 17 Ben Daley, 18 Rob

Simmons, 19 Jake Schatz, 20 Liam Gill, 21 Nick Frisby, 22 Luke Morahan.

Kickoff: 5.05 pm. Referee: Jonathan Kaplan. Curtain-raiser:

Vodacom Cup, Sharks XV vs WP (2.45 pm).

THIS WEEKEND’S GAMES

(HOME TEAM FIRST, SA TIMES):

Today: Hurricanes vs Highlanders, 8.35 am; Waratahs vs Force, 10.40am; Sharks vs Reds, 5.05 pm.

Tomorrow: Rebels vs Cheetahs, 7.10 am; Byes: Lions, Bulls and Crusaders.

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