Newlands set for a bruiser

2015-03-07 00:00

TWO survivors from the 2007 World Cup-winning Springbok team, Frans Steyn and J.P. Pietersen, will hold centre stage tonight when the Sharks face another bruising challenge against the buoyant Stormers at Newlands.

The two have been rushed straight to the front-line just days after returning to Durban from Japan as coach Gary Gold looks to beef up the Sharks midfield, both on attack and defence.

While they have played together for the Sharks and the Springboks on numerous occasions, they are untested as a midfield combination. Steyn spent most of last year at fly half after Pat Lambie’s early-season injury and Pietersen’s days with the Sharks have largely been spent on the wing.

The pair are in fine fettle physically, we are told, and have defied the trend by shedding rather than gaining weight in Japan, but it is their state of mind and match sharpness that will be under the spotlight tonight.

Steyn, only 27, turned his back on Springbok rugby last year but he remains contracted and, one hopes, committed to the Sharks. The enigmatic Pietersen, who is a year older than his midfield partner, has all the natural ability but he appears to have lost some of his zest for the game in recent years.

Former Sharks coach John Plumtree was the first to shift Pietersen briefly from wing to centre, and this did increase the tall Springbok’s work rate. But the Sharks, and indeed the Springboks, are looking for an outside centre who can create space for the wing by drawing defenders and passing. The concern with Pietersen is that he will have 13 on his back but he will continue to run like a wing.

The two have important roles to play in firing up the Sharks backline, in keeping Damian de Allende and the lively Juan de Jongh under wraps, and in preventing the Stormers’ runners bashing over the gain line.

Steyn and Pietersen are not the only Sharks short of a gallop. Springbok flank Willem Alberts is finally making a return and will play in his first game in seven months after recovering from back and hamstring problems.

Contests between well-matched Stormers and Sharks teams in recent years have been taut, confrontational affairs with honours going to the team edging the physical battle.

Sharks coach Gary Gold is looking to the 120 kg Alberts to provide more muscle, while the Stormers are delighted to have abrasive Springbok lock Eben Etzebeth back from injury, particularly as their line-out was wonky against the Lions last weekend. They also have a Japan-based 2007 World Cup veteran in their mix with Schalk Burger included on the bench just days after his return and he will be a valuable source of second-half energy.

The Stormers appear to have put their scrummaging problems behind them and they are now spoilt for choice on the tighthead.

Vincent Koch, on loan from the Pumas, has emerged as an exciting prospect who offers more than strong scrummaging, while Springbok Frans Malherbe, after an extended injury break and earmarked as Jannie du Plessis’ successor, is on the Stormers bench.

The Sharks’ young prop Thomas du Toit, preferred to Dale Chadwick and in the continued absence of Beast Mtawarira, will start at loosehead. Du Toit is only 19, for goodness sake, and he ought to be learning his trade in the junior ranks. He faces a stern test at New­lands but he does seem quite at home playing with the grown-ups.

Veteran Sharks tighthead Matt Stevens, who also played in that 2007 World Cup final — but for losers England —will find the going tough against the enthusiastic Steven Kitshoff on the other side of the scrum. Stevens, for all his experience, has made little impact since joining the Sharks from Saracens but he does offer more than Jannie du Plessis away from the scrum.

Much was also made of the front-row battle at Loftus last week but there were only four scrums in the 80 minutes, leaving the contest to be fought around the breakdown and the line-out.

In spite of all the hype about their attacking play, the Stormers are falling back on old habits and again showing how to win without the ball. They are well down on the overall attacking statistics, scoring only five tries in winning three successive games; the Sharks have run in eight tries but lost twice.

The Sharks, after talk of a new attacking dawn, are also placing the emphasis on the territory game and Lambie is making liberal use of the attacking kick to the open side wing, just as Irish flyhalf Johnny Sexton did in tormenting the English in Dublin on Sunday.

The Sharks’ inconsistent form is already frustrating their supporters and they have blown cold, hot and lukewarm in losing two of their three games this season. They will certainly have to be firing from the start tonight if the Stormers are to be contained in front of their home crowd. With the Stormers’ Duane Vermeulen, Etzebeth and Burger on one side, and Alberts, Marcell Coetzee and Pieter-Steph du Toit on the other, the collisions will be particularly fierce.

The Stormers (12 points) are second on the overall log and the sixth-placed Sharks (6) need to win to stay in touch in the race for the South African conference. There are too many imponderables to be confident that the Sharks, even if starting with 13 internationals, can overcome the unbeaten Stormers at home. But, again, that is when they are at their most threatening. You pays your money and you takes your chance.

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