No banter as Plumtree meets old rival tonight

2012-03-10 00:00

THERE will be a whiff of desperation in the air when the Sharks, in their first home outing of Super Rugby this year, face the injury-hit Lions at King’s Park this evening.

The Lions, already disrupted in the front-row following injuries last weekend, yesterday lost flyhalf Elton Jantjies to a sore foot and prop Pat Cilliers to a tummy bug.

Coach John Mitchell has moved Butch James from inside centre to flyhalf and recalled centre Alwyn Hollenbach.

Mitchell had been hoping to use the abrasive Butch James at inside centre to add some aggression to the midfield defence while providing a further tactical kicking option. Still, James will welcome the chance to play where he is happiest.

We are only a fortnight into the 16-stage marathon slog, one which will carry us through to August, but all week the Sharks have been highlighting the importance of victory in tonight’s game.

“Victory is absolutely vital,” assistant Shark coach Hugh Reece-Edwards emphasised. “We have to get our campaign going sooner rather than later.”

Not only do the Sharks want to end the run of two successive defeats on the road, but they need to find some momentum and lift the mood in the camp ahead of next weekend’s game against the title-holding Queensland Reds in Durban and then the taxing tour to Australia and New Zealand.

And nagging away, of course, is this poorly conceived deal that the SA Rugby Union have done for next year which will result in one of the exiting five franchises having to make way for the Southern Kings. The Sharks will want to put that threat behind them as quickly as possible.

The Sharks have lost two difficult away games — at Loftus and Newlands — both narrowly and to penalty goals. They have yet to concede a try, but have scored only one themselves and coach John Plumtree is looking to the return of powerful flank Willem Alberts to cross the gainline and provide the Sharks with go-forward ball.

Plumtree said the forwards had to lay the foundation and help bring out the best in quick-passing Frederic Michalak, who has again been preferred to the more physical Charl McLeod at scrumhalf.

“Fred has had a pass mark so far this season. But the forwards haven’t yet given him the necessary platform. There was some improvement against the Stormers, but we are prepared to give Fred more time to settle into scrumhalf where he hasn’t played much recently. He’s important to us in that position at the moment.”

The impact that Alberts has on this contest will be decisive. Fit and committed, he is a destructive force, a massive influence, both on attack and in defence. The concern is that his ongoing shoulder problem, and now surgery, could have knocked his confidence and that it will take him weeks to recover the old drive.

Mitchell has suggested that he will tinker with his team’s expansive, ball-in-the-hand approach and play a more conservative, territorial game to combat the physical approach of the Sharks and the heat, humidity and slippery ball in Durban.

The Sharks’ plan will be to force the ­Lions to play behind the advantage line. They would hope to outscrum a Lions pack hit by injuries in the front row, and the Sharks lineout, after facing the big jumpers in Pretoria and Cape Town, should be more secure. And if the contest is tight, the talent on the Sharks’ superior bench should prove an insurance against what would be an upset defeat.

A major Sharks’ problem this season has been the discipline, which cost them at both Loftus and Newlands.

The Lions will miss the prolific goalkicking of Jantjies, but replacement kicker James has played most of his rugby at King’s Park and the Sharks will have to stay on the straight and narrow.

“The Lions have their problems and we have ours, but we’re really only focused on the way we play,” said Plumtree.

“It’s obviously a big game for us, our first at home, and it’s important we have a really good game from a conference point of view. It’s a must-win for us and we need to come out and play some really good rugby.

“We have to make sure we negate their strengths and play well to ours — that’s very important,” said Plumtree.

And so Plumtree and Mitchell, good friends, old rivals and fellow-New Zealanders, bump again tonight — but without the usual banter. This game is too important for that.

TEAMS

Sharks: 15 Riaan Viljoen, 14 Odwa Ndungane, 13 JP Pietersen, 12 Tim Whitehead, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Pat Lambie, 9 Frederic Michalak, 8 Keegan Daniel (c), 7 Willem Alberts, 6 Marcell Coetzee, 5 Ross Skeate, 4 Steven Sykes, 3 Wiehahn Herbst, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Dale Chadwick.

Replacements: 16 Craig Burden, 17 Jannie du Plessis, 18 Anton Bresler, 19 Jacques Botes, 20 Charl McLeod, 21 Meyer Bosman, 22 Paul Jordaan.

Lions: 15 Jaco Taute, 14 Deon van Rensburg, 13 Doppies la Grange, 12 Alwyn Hollenbach, 11 Michael Killian, 10 Butch James, 9 Michael Bondesio, 8 Warren Whiteley, 7 Joshua Strauss (c), 6 Derick Minnie, 5 Franco van der Merwe, 4 Marius Coetzer, 3 Jacobie Adriaanse, 2 Callie Visagie, 1 Caylib Oosthuizen.

Replacements: 16 Martin Bezuidenhout, 17 Ruan Dreyer, 18 Stephan Greef, 19 Cobus Grobbelaar, 20 Tian Meyer, 21 Andries Coetzee, 22 James Kamana.

Referee: Mark Lawrence (SA). Kick-off: 5.05 pm.

TODAY’S FIXTURES

(home team first, SA times):

Brumbies vs Cheetahs, 6.35 am; Highlanders vs Waratahs, 8.35 am; Reds vs Rebels, 10.50 am; Sharks vs Lions, 5.05 pm; Bulls vs Blues, 7.10 pm.

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