Sharks’ campaign begins in earnest

2013-02-23 00:00

THE armchair war is finally behind us and the calm will be broken in Bloemfontein this evening when the Sharks take on the Cheetahs in what should prove a hectic Super Rugby opener.

After weeks of hype and speculation, sabre-rattling and dummy runs, hostilities will break out this weekend and expectations are running high.

“The pre-season is always very long for everyone,” said Sharks coach John Plumtree. “We’re now ready to go and I’m sure the Cheetahs are as well.”

The Sharks, who finished last year’s competition with a flourish and defied the odds in reaching the final, are looking for a strong start this time and greater consistency.

But they are bumping the Cheetahs at an awkward time — and not only because the Free Staters are in their own backyard. Injuries have exposed the Cheetahs’ lack of depth in the past, but at the start of the season they are close to full strength and will field a talented, well-equipped team.

Plumtree is certainly not counting his chickens.

“The Cheetahs won overseas in last year’s competition, so they have more belief. They have a good side, from one to 15 and they will keep winning games this year. They will knock sides off in Bloemfontein. That is a tough fixture for every team.”

The balance of the Cheetahs team and their pace and attacking skills concerns Plumtree.

“They can play from all areas of the field. If you’re sleeping on defence, they can hurt you from deep. They contest the ball at line-out time and I’m sure they will put pressure on us. It’s going to be a big challenge.”

His counterpart, Cheetahs coach Naka Drotské, agrees that his team will be particularly dangerous at home.

“We believe that we can beat any team in Bloemfontein.”

The Cheetahs have a tough start to the season, facing last year’s Super Rugby finalists — the Sharks tonight and the champions Chiefs next weekend — in the opening fortnight.

“This Sharks game is very important for us. We know the importance of starting well and it will relieve a lot of early-season pressure if we can leave Bloem with a win under our belts,” said Drotské.

“We’ve worked very hard since last November and most of our key players are fit.”

The Sharks are also looking for a positive start this year and have placed a heavy emphasis on winning the South African conference.

“We learned last year that you need to get off to a good start and maintain some momentum through the competition to avoid the travel factor at the end,” said Plumtree.

“The Stormers have won the South African conference in the last couple of years and that’s the easiest route to the final. This is a conference game and hugely important.”

Both teams are expected to play at high tempo, the Sharks because that has been their way in recent seasons and the Cheetahs because the attacking flair of backs Raymond Rhule, Willie le Roux , Johann Sadie, Robert Ebersohn and Johan Goosen should encourage an expansive approach.

The Sharks will hope to squeeze the Cheetahs at forward and Plumtree has named his most experienced tight five. But, with Pat Lambie looking particularly sharp at flyhalf and the Sharks concentrating on keeping the ball in hand, they will hope to stretch the Cheetahs defence, using Frans Steyn’s strength in the midfield and the pace of Paul Jordaan, JP Pietersen and Lwazi Mvovo out wide.

“We don’t want our players to be conservative,” said Plumtree, “but we do want them to be smart in summing up situations in front of them.”

Plumtree has conceded that the Sharks, after their soft warm-up game against the Leopards, are short of a gallop while the Cheetahs, on the back of three tough pre-season friendlies, will be less rusty.

The Cheetahs are certainly a major threat at home, but, if the Sharks tight forwards do their job in the set pieces and their backs keep making their tackles, then Plumtree’s team should start their marathon campaign with a crucial win on the road.

TEAMS:

Cheetahs: 15. Hennie Daniller, 14. Willie le Roux, 13. Johann Sadie, 12. Robert Ebersohn, 11. Raymond Rhule, 10. Johan Goosen, 9. Piet van Zyl, 8. Philip van der Walt, 7. Lappies Labuschagne, 6. Frans Viljoen, 5. Francois Uys, 4. Lood de Jager, 3. Lourens Adriaanse, 2. Adriaan Strauss (captain), 1. Trevor Nyakane.

Replacements: 16. Ryno Barnes, 17. Coenie Oosthuizen, 18. Waltie Vermeulen, 19. Boom Prinsloo, 20 Sarel Pretorius, 21. Elgar Watts, 22. Ryno Benjamin.

Sharks: 15. Louis Ludik, 14. JP Pietersen, 13. Paul Jordaan, 12. Francois Steyn (captain), 11. Lwazi Mvovo, 10. Patrick Lambie, 9. Cobus Reinach, 8. Ryan Kankowski, 7. Marcell Coetzee, 6. Jacques Botes, 5. Franco van der Merwe, 4. Anton Bresler, 3. Jannie du Plessis, 2. Craig Burden, 1. Tendai Mtawarira.

Replacements: 16. Kyle Cooper, 17. Wiehahn Herbst, 18. Pieter-Steph du Toit 19. Jean Deysel, 20. Charl McLeod, 21. Meyer Bosman, 22. Odwa Ndungane.

Referee: Jonathan Kaplan (RSA). Kick-off: 5.05 pm

Today’s fixtures (home team first, SA times): Hurricanes v Blues, 8.35 am; Reds v Waratahs, 10.40 am; Cheetahs v Sharks, 5.05 pm; Kings v Force, 7.10 pm.; Bye: Crusaders.

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