Sharks: Take your marks

2008-03-07 00:00

The Sharks face their toughest test as Super 14 contenders against the Blues tonight.

BY this evening, amid the blood, sweat and beer, we will know whether the Sharks are again genuine Super 14 contenders.

Dick Muir’s young side, suddenly having to look to lightweight forwards to do heavy duty work, face a daunting challenge as they take on the rampant Auckland Blues.

The New Zealanders, log-leaders and joint favourites for the title, have ridden roughshod over South African opponents this past fortnight, reaching the half-century mark in downing both the Lions and the Cheetahs.

Muir is blunt in his assessment of the Sharks’ chances: “If we play to our potential we can win; if we play as we have in previous games this season then we’ll be beaten”.

The Sharks, relying heavily on their exciting bench and a strong finish, have scrambled their way to three successive wins. It is, of course, the mark of a champion to win when playing badly, but brief patches of inspired rugby will not be enough against an innovative, fluent and slick Blues line-up.

The Sharks, playing a tactical game around a hefty pack, twice beat the Blues last year — in round robin play and again in the semi-final — but the changes in personnel, as Muir points, have added to the challenge tonight.

While the Blues, with a settled squad and time to prepare after the World Cup, have been quick out of the blocks, the Sharks, delayed by the November Bok tour, are still to find their rhythm.

Nine players (Smit, Venter, Ackermann, Carstens, Britz, Skinstad, Pienaar, James and Montgomery) who were in the squad for the Super 14 semi-final against the Blues last season are now missing.

“That is a massive change in personnel,” said Muir yesterday, “and we all have to be realistic. As we have seen this season, it takes time for the combinations to settle and work.

“But the loss of all these players provides openings and opportunities for others and, if they stand up and play the way they can, I have no doubt we can still beat the Blues.”

Muir concedes it will be “a huge test”.

“The Blues have a mobile side with a dangerous backline and game-breakers across the park.”

The Blues are enjoying, and exploiting, the new laws. Their scrum is strong and they have attacked effectively off that base, clearing the ball quickly to All Black wing Joe Rokocoko and company out wide.

“Our only chance is to deny them possession and make certain our defence is tight,” said Muir.

And that is Muir’s problem. The loss of his two most physical and experienced forwards, Johan Ackermann and AJ Venter, from the pack which played at Loftus a week ago, has left him without the usual forward grunt.

He has a brawny enough front-row with Bismarck du Plessis back at hooker, but his brother Jannie, a tighthead, is out of position on the loosehead and his backrow is light if mobile.

And, if lock Albert van den Berg, who is Ackermann’s replacement, wanders off and sits on the bench, it is only because that is where he has spent most of his recent Sharks career amongst the replacements as an impact player.

Muir had few options at lock with Steve Sykes not yet ready to start and Venter injured. Without that forward power and physicality, the Sharks may well struggle to place the Blues on the backfoot and limit the influence, which Nick Evans, one of the better Super 14 flyhalves, has on the game.

Muir’s backrow of Ryan Kankowski, Jacques Botes and Kegan Daniel, off a solid forward base, would burn up the field, but the danger is that they will be sucked into the forward exchanges if the Sharks tight five do not match the Blues.

The bookies have the Blues as favourites and to win by seven points. The Sharks are hoping the humidity, and the resultant wet ball, will be an important ally, but they will still have to snuff out the Blues backs, and close down their counter-attacks, if they are to stay in this contest.

The concern tonight is that they have sufficient heavy machinery up front to do the job.

TEAMS

Sharks: Francois Steyn, Stefan Terblanche, Waylon Murray, Bradley Barritt, JP Pietersen, Frederic Michalak, Rory Kockott, Ryan Kankowski, Jacques Botes, Keegan Daniel, Johann Muller (capt), Albert van den Berg, BJ Botha, Bismarck du Plessis, Jannie du Plessis.

Replacements: Craig Burden, Tendai Mtawarira, Steven Sykes, Jean Deysel, Charl Mcleod, Adrian Jacobs, Odwa Ndungane.

Blues: Ben Atiga, Anthony Tuitavake, Isaia Toeava, Benson Stanley, Joe Rokocoko, Nick Evans, Danny Lee, Nick Williams, Justin Collins, Jerome Kaino, Troy Flavell (capt), Kurtis Haiu, John Afoa, Keven Mealamu, Tony Woodcock.

Replacements: Tom McCartney, Bronson Murray, Bryn, Onosa’i Tololima—Auva’a, Taniela Moa, Rudi Wulf, George Pisi.

Referee: Brett Bowden (Australia).

Kick-off: 7.10 pm. Curtain-raiser: 4.30 pm Natal Wildebeest vs Griqas (Vodacom Cup).

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