Reinforcements arrive

2011-10-15 00:00

THE Springboks’ early exit from the Rugby World Cup was devastating, but it has thrown the Sharks an unexpected Currie Cup lifeline ahead of their final pool game against the log-leading Golden Lions at King’s Park tonight.

With seven Sharks returning to the squad — and six in the match 22 tonight — their chances of defending their title after a see-sawing season have improved significantly.

The Sharks, in second place, and the third-placed Free State, who play Griquas in Bloemfontein this afternoon, are in a battle to host the second semi-final next Saturday. The Sharks are just a point ahead, but they have an inferior points difference and must match any log points picked up Free State to secure a home semi-final.

The Lions have already nailed down a home semi-final (and a final if they advance), but they could have their hands full next Saturday when they are likely to face Western Province, with all their Springboks, in the play-offs. The Sharks will be hoping that they not only earn a home semi-final tonight, but that they then down Free State in the play-offs while Province win at Ellis Park. This would result in a repeat of the 2010 final when the Sharks beat WP in Durban.

But coach John Plumtree and the Sharks, with every reason after a battling season, cannot afford to look ahead of tonight’s game. The Lions, as Plumtree has pointed out, have nothing to lose tonight and this makes them a dangerous outfit.

“The Lions have been the most consistent side in the Currie Cup,” said Plumtree. “They’ve got themselves into a really good position. We have our own worries in terms of reintegrating our Boks and making sure we are ready for what will be a tough outing.”

Plumtree said the Sharks would probably have to win with a bonus point (four tries) to pip Free State for second place.

“The Lions are well organised and we’ll have to play very well to beat them.”

Plumtree’s close friend, fellow-New Zealander John Mitchell, is the successful coach of the Lions and he said the match is a crucial one for the Sharks.

“They will be desperate and we are expecting a brutal approach,” Mitchell said. “But I think we can match them or even better them for intensity.”

Both teams, for entirely different reasons, have made half-a-dozen changes to their starting line-ups. Sharks coach Plumtree wants to involve his big Springboks as quickly as possible while John Mitchell is looking to rest - and not risk — his key players ahead of the semi-finals.

Plumtree has bolstered his team with two World Cup Springboks (Pat Lambie and Odwa Ndungane) while a couple of first-choice players (Ryan Kankowski and Craig Burden) are returning from injury.

The replacement benches of both teams are crowded with talented players. Plumtree has included four World Cup Springboks (the Du Plessis brothers, Willem Alberts and JP Pietersen) amongst his reserves while Mitchell’s has Springbok Butch James and six of his senior players on the bench.

Indeed, the bash of the bench in the second half could well decide this contest.

Mitchell praised the impact James has had on the squad.

“Butch is ready and has had a very positive influence on the rest of the team,” he said.

The Lions coach said he was not concerned about the many RWC Boks in the Sharks squad.

“At the end of the day,” he said,“the best team and not the best individual players will win the Currie Cup and we are not focused on who they have in the team.”

The Lions are in precisely the same position as the Sharks were last season when they travelled to Newlands to play Province with a watered-down team in the final pool game. The Sharks lost, but then fielded the fresher team in the final and took the title.

Plumtree has lineout concerns, but Kankowski does bring some height to the tail. Injury has again forced Plumtree to shuffle his midfield while the Sharks will also need to provide more effective protection for scrumhalf Conrad Hoffman.

But from a Sharks’ viewpoint interest will centre on the RWC Boks, particularly Pat Lambie and, when they come off the bench, Bismarck du Plessis, Willem Alberts and JP Pietersen.

The Sharks, stuttering but hanging on for most of the season, have lacked control and continuity and not looked like potential Currie Cup champions.

But, with the big boys now joining the party, they have the chance to turn the final three weeks of the Currie Cup into a celebration.

TEAMS

Sharks: 15 Pat Lambie, 14 Odwa Ndungane, 13 Stefan Terblanche, 12 Marius Joubert, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Frederic Michalak, 9 Conrad Hoffmann, 8 Ryan Kankowski, 7 Marcell Coetzee, 6 Keegan Daniel (captain), 5 Ross Skeate, 4 Jean Deysel, 3 Wiehahn Herbst, 2 Craig Burden, 1 Eugene van Staden.

Substitutes: Bismarck du Plessis, Jannie du Plessis, Willem Alberts, Jacques Botes, Ross Cronje, Jacques-Louis Potgieter, JP Pietersen.

Golden Lions: 15 Jaco Taute, 14 Deon van Rensburg, 13 Dylan des Fountain, 12 Doppies la Grange, 11 James Kamana, 10 Burton Francis, 9 Michael Bondesio, 8 Warren Whiteley, 7 Joshua Strauss (captain), 6 Jaco Kriel, 5 Michael Rhodes, 4 Wikus van Heerden, 3 Jacobie Adriaanse, 2 Martin Bezuidenhout, 1 JC Janse van Rensburg

Substitutes: 16 Bandise Maku, 17 Patric Cilliers, 18 Franco van der Merwe, 19 Derick Minnie, 20 Elton Jantjies, 21 Butch James, 22 Michael Killian

Referee: Jason Jaftha.

Kick-off: 7 pm.

Curtain-raisers: Sharks U19 v Lions (3 pm); Sharks U21 v Lions (4.40 pm)

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