‘Shape up or ship out’

2011-05-28 00:00

IT is a time of shaping up or shipping out for the Sharks when they play their final home Super Rugby game of the season against the Waratahs at King’s Park this evening.

The Sharks, in seventh spot on the log, need to beat the fifth-placed Waratahs and then win their remaining games — against the Cheetahs, Lions and Bulls and all away from home — to reach the play-offs.

Their defeat last week to the Bulls has almost certainly cost them the chance of heading the South African conference and they now face the gloomy prospect, even if they finish in the top six, of having to keep travelling for their play-offs games.

It is a telling comment on the Sharks’ patchy form that coach John Plumtree has made significant team changes at this critical stage of the competition.

Burly backrower Willem Alberts and scrumhalf Charl McLeod, vital cogs in the Sharks’ high tempo game, are now being rested. Alberts, who has carried an enormous workload in recent months, was responsible for providing the Sharks with go-forward ball while the snappy McLeod, sniping around the fringes, brought a sharp edge to the attack.

But the long season, and 12 games in 14 weeks, has taken its toll on their form and Plumtree is forced to reconsider his options.

Ironically, the resting of Alberts has come at a time when Plumtree needs him most. Waratahs coach Chris Hickey and his players have been taking heavy flak back home in Sydney for their narrow tactical approach and worrying more about winning matches than entertaining their supporters.

Plumtree says the Sharks are now in a similar position. Their poor handling and laboured passing has at times made a mockery of their attempts to play a rapid, expansive game and the Sharks coach said he was reconsidering his tactical options.

“We have not been able to achieve our objectives and might have to play a different way as well.”

This suggests that the Sharks are looking at playing the percentages, kicking for territory and cutting back on mistakes in their own half. They do not, however, look particularly well-equipped to play a tighter conservative game.

With Ryan Kankowski injured and Alberts now missing, they are fielding a relatively small but mobile backrow which includes both Keegan Daniel and Jacques Botes, their lineout has wobbled all season and flyhalf Pat Lambie is a running, passing, breaking flyhalf rather than a kicking one.

Still, after a string of failures in their big games this season, the Sharks do need to move away from what has become a predictable approach, one which has not been helped by inept handling and the inability of their forwards to consistently create the necessary momentum.

What will certainly make their job even tougher tonight is the quality of the Waratahs’ defence, modelled on a rugby league system, which is the best in the competition.

Hickey is miffed that the Waratahs are being criticised for their attack, but receiving no credit for their defence.

“When measuring the character of a team, you look at their defence and how they pull together under pressure,” he said. “It would be nice to get a bit of public recognition for that.”

The pride which the Waratahs take in their defence points to another tough evening for the disjointed Sharks’ attack and new scrumhalf Conrad Hoffman, whether running, passing or kicking, has a key role to play.

Hickey said his players had prepared for the most physical of games. “The Sharks will be highly motivated. They’ll see that this is one of the games that will end up defining their season.”

The Sharks were exposed defensively by the Bulls last Saturday and it might well suit them if the Waratahs continue to make only limited calls on a back division which includes the attacking skills of the creative Kurtley Beale, Lachie Turner, Ryan Cross, Berrick Barnes and Luke Burgess.

But it is time for the Sharks to shine up. Their coach said he had done with talking.

“The players have heard all the speeches from me. I can’t come up with anything new now. There is a lot of pressure. Some players can step up each week, others struggle, so we’ll just have to see who copes on Saturday night,” said Plumtree.

It is, then, the last Super Rugby hurrah for the King’s Park faithful this evening. One hopes this time the Sharks are in the mood for a party.

TEAMS

Sharks: 15 Louis Ludik, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Stefan Terblanche, 12 Meyer Bosman, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Patrick Lambie, 9 Conrad Hoffmann, 8 Keegan Daniel, 7 Jean Deysel, 6 Jacques Botes, 5 Alistair Hargreaves, 4 Steven Sykes, 3 Eugene van Staden, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 John Smit (c).

Replacements: 16 Beast Mtawarira, 17 Wiehahn Herbst, 18 Gerhard Mostert, 19 Willem Alberts, 20 Charl McLeod, 21 Jacques-Louis Potgieter, 22 Riaan Swanepoel.

Waratahs: Kurtley Beale, Lachie Turner, Ryan Cross, Tom Carter, Soseni Anesi, Berrick Barnes, Luke Burgess, Ben Mowen, Chris Alcock, Dave Dennis, Sitaleki Timani, Dean Mumm (c), Sekope Kepu, Tatafu Polota-Nau, Benn Robinson.

Replacements: John Ulugia, Al Baxter, Pat O’Connor, Hugh Perrett, Brendan McKibbin, Daniel Halangahu, Atieli Pakalani.

Referee: Jonathan Kaplan.

Kick-off: 5.05 pm (SS1)

Weekend fixtures (home team first, SA times):

Today: Highlanders vs Lions 9.35 am; Brumbies vs Stormers 11.40 am; Sharks vs Waratahs 5.05 pm; Bulls vs Cheetahs 7.10 pm.

Tomorrow: Reds vs Crusaders 8.10 am; Byes: Blues, Chiefs, Rebels.

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