Performance over reputation

2013-03-23 00:00

AFTER an uncomfortable week of brickbats and expulsions, the Sharks are desperate to bounce back by tearing into the Rebels in their Super Rugby outing at King’s Park this evening.

Everyone and his kid sister has been taking pot shots at the Sharks since their meek first-half surrender to the Brumbies last week. Coach John Plumtree, muttering about the attitude of some of his senior players, has replaced seven of them and is looking to enthusiastic youth “to turn the ship around”.

The Sharks won their opening three games (against the Cheetahs, Stormers and Kings) without finding any attacking rhythm, but were then badly beaten by the Brumbies a week ago when their defence suddenly went missing. The Sharks were unable to contain the Brumbies on the gainline, while their backs, waiting on their heels instead of getting into the faces of the attackers, were constantly exposed.

With space, time and possession, the Brumbies had a field day and the Sharks were handed the harshest of lessons.

The Sharks are clearly caught between two tactical stools. Injury has denied them their most physical forwards (Willem Alberts, Jean Deysel and Bismarck du Plessis) and they are struggling to breach the gainline. And, because their backs have lacked cohesion and confidence, they have been unable to attack with the high tempo, expansive game which was a feature of their rugby last year.

Plumtree, in making his selections this week, appears committed to a more fluid game. He has a relatively small backrow (Keegan Daniel, Jacques Botes and Marcell Coetzee), a mobile young lock in Pieter-Steph du Toit and genuine pace in the backline.

He now has the excellent distributing skills of Meyer Bosman alongside Pat Lambie in midfield and the outside backs are certain to be provided with attacking opportunities.

The Rebels are preparing for the inevitable Sharks’ backlash, but they believe the Brumbies have provided them with a road map to victory. Certainly, the Sharks appeared vulnerable last Saturday when the Brumbies attacked the gainline, recycled possession quickly and exploited space down the wings.

The Rebels have brought in two exceptionally quick wings in fit-again Wallaby Cooper Vuna, and Kiwi debutant Jason Woodward. Crucially, they have Wallaby playmaker James O’Connor at flyhalf and, if the Sharks sit back in defence, he will cut them to pieces.

“We have to defend far better than we did against the Brumbies,” Plumtree said. “They will look to get across the advantage line and they have some outstanding backs with James O’Connor a real game-breaker.

“Scott Higginbotham [the Wallaby flank] is a very experienced campaigner and hooker Ged Robinson I know from my coaching days at Wellington. They’ll test us.”

Plumtree said the focus would be on placing the Rebels under pressure.

“We’ve identified their patterns of play, but we need to be able to inflict some pain on them. We haven’t been able to do that in the last couple of weeks and that’s certainly got to be the goal on Saturday evening.”

The Australian media have reacted with surprise to the many changes in the Sharks line-up and the dropping of the high-profile Frans Steyn.

Rebels coach Damien Hill is not so sure.

“I’m not going to second guess what another coach is doing, but Plum obviously wasn’t pleased with their performance last week and he sees this as the best way to overcome that loss. “Hopefully [for the Rebels], it doesn’t work, but it may well. Wait and see.”

While the Rebels have never won overseas, and have lost all three games this year (to the Reds, Waratahs and Brumbies), they cannot expect to face complacent opposition this evening.

Plumtree has sent out the strongest possible message that his selection will be based on performance and attitude rather than reputation.

“We have to up the intensity in everything we do. We have to promise Keegan Daniel that the 14 guys behind him are fully committed to our objectives.”

The Sharks, hurting and bent on restoring damaged pride in front of their home support, should win … and, finally, in some style.

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