Plum’s problems pile up

2013-04-20 00:00

THE Sharks, suffering on all sides, face a major test of their resolve when they take on the confident Cheetahs in the Super Rugby derby at King’s Park this evening.

Sharks coach John Plumtree has described the week as the most difficult of his coaching career as he has to confront the team’s poor form — and drop three celebrated Springboks from the starting line-up — while contending with a short, disrupted week of preparation and a growing injury list.

Springboks Frans Steyn and Jannie du Plessis have been demoted to the bench, and Ryan Kankowski has been omitted from the squad for at least a month, but it is the loss to injury of influential wing JP Pietersen which is the most significant setback.

Naka Drotské and his Cheetahs will arrive at King’s Park with good reason to believe they can topple the South African conference log-leaders — but not because they are the Sharks’ bogey team. (Indeed, the opposite is true with the Sharks having had five straight Super Rugby wins over the Cheetahs since 2011).

It is current form and the organisation of the settled, cohesive Cheetahs team, rather than past history, which suggest that the Sharks will have their hands full tonight.

The Cheetahs chalked up a record five successive Super Rugby wins before their narrow 20-26 loss to the Bulls at Loftus last week and they trail the Sharks by three log points.

Their energetic, inventive style, and the threat posed by the in-form backs Robert Ebersohn, Willie le Roux and Raymond Rhule, will provide a test for any defence while the Sharks’ disjointed attack — particularly without the world-class Pietersen — will hold few terrors for them.

Drotské’s only real fear is that his players are running out of puff following their overseas tour. The Cheetahs are the only franchise not to have yet enjoyed a weekend bye and Drotské says he does not have the depth to rotate players.

He blamed “the lack of spark” in his team as the reason for the loss at Loftus, but at least his players should not have to combat the intense Durban humidity today.

The wet weather which is forecast could, however, also prove an important ally for the Sharks, blunting the Cheetahs’ free-flowing style. But if they are to take advantage of conditions, the Sharks’ forwards need to play with an intensity and focus — which was patently missing at Newlands a week ago and provide youngsters Pieter-Steph du Toit and Kyle Cooper with hard-nosed support.

The Cheetahs, enjoying their most productive run in Super Rugby, have this year discovered a way of turning close contests into victories rather than narrow defeats and they will test the Sharks in every area. The battle of the setpiece will be crucial, particularly if the conditions are slippery, while the Cheetahs believe Bok flank Heinrich Brüssow will provide them with a telling edge at the breakdown.

Flank Jean Deysel, returning from injury, will bring a physical edge to the Sharks backrow but he has not played for five weeks and he will need time to settle.

The Sharks, if they are to combat a dangerous-looking Cheetahs outfit, will need to show renewed vigour and commitment and flyhalf Pat Lambie, still to make the expected impact in general play, has to marshall a below-strength backline in what could be testing, muddy conditions.

In spite of the gloom, the Sharks still top the South African conference and will be desperate to retain their lead and leave on their overseas travels tomorrow on the back of a win.

The past month has been a dark one for Sharks rugby and not only because of the patchy form and the many on-going injury concerns. The tragic and fatal bar-room brawl, conspiracies and intrigue in the Sharks’ boardroom, and even a threat to the traditional post-match braai have been front page news.

The Sharks will want to make headlines this weekend for the right reasons. Plumtree is not the only one who is having his patience tested.

TEAMS

Sharks:15. Riaan

Viljoen, 14. Odwa

Ndungane, 13. Paul Jordaan,12. Meyer

Bosman, 11. Sean Robinson, 10. Patrick

Lambie, 9. Cobus

Reinach, 8. Keegan Daniel (c), 7. Jean Deysel , 6. Marcell

Coetzee, 5. Franco van der Merwe, 4. Pieter-Steph du Toit,

3. Wiehahn Herbst, 2. Kyle Cooper, 1. Tendai Mtawarira.

Replacements: 16. Craig Burden, 17. Jannie du Plessis, 18. Anton Bresler, 19. Tera Mtembu, 20. Charl McLeod, 21. Francois Steyn, 22. Andries Coetzee.

Cheetahs: 15 Hennie Daniller, 14 Willie le Roux, 13 Johan Sadie, 12 Robert Ebersohn, 11 Raymond Rhule, 10 Burton

Francis, 9 Piet van Zyl, 8 Phillip van der Walt, 7 Lappies

Labuschagne, 6 Heinrich Brussow, 5 Francois Uys, 4 Lodewyk de Jager, 3 Lourens Adriaanse, 2 Adriaan Strauss (captain),

1 Coenie Oosthuizen.

Replacements: 16 Ryno Barnes, 17 17 Caylib Oosthuizen,

18 Landman Ligtoring, 19 Frans Viljoen, 20 Tewis de Bruyn,

21 Francois Brummer Francois, 22 Ryno Benjamin.

Kick-off: 5.05 pm. Referee: Jonathan White (NZ).

Today’s fixtures (home team first, SA times):

Crusaders v Highlanders 9.35 am. Reds v Brumbies 11.40 am. Sharks v Cheetahs 5.05 pm. Kings v Bulls 7.10 pm.

Byes: Blues, Rebels, Stormers

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