Sharks happy to be taken lightly

2011-06-25 00:00

THE romantics are dreaming about a second miracle in less than a week, but the realists are unanimous that beating the Crusaders in today’s Super Rugby quarter-final in distant Nelson is a bridge too far for John Plumtree’s Sharks.

Plumtree has acknowledged that the odds are heavily stacked against the Sharks, but he is happy to see his side being written off, just as they were last week ahead of their superb 26-23 win over the Bulls.

“We haven’t set this tournament alight really,” Plumtree told reporters. “We were always looking for a big, big game at some point. I congratulated the players for producing it in the 18th round,” he added with a smile.

“I hope we kick on. The win in Pretoria gave the group some confidence and self-belief.”

The Sharks will have to defy history and jet lag to win. They have never beaten the Crusaders in New Zealand while only once in 12 play-offs between South African and New Zealand teams – when the Highlanders beat the Stormers at Newlands in 1999 — has a knockout game been won by the travelling team.

While the composed Crusaders thrive in play-off situations, and they have won the Super Rugby title seven times, the Sharks’ play-off record away from home is poor with just one win in four semi-finals and two finals.

“We haven’t really got a lot to lose,” Plumtree said. “Obviously we have our own expectations, but we’re playing a long way from home, the travel factor has been huge and we’re playing against a top side in their own back yard.

“It’s a big challenge, but it’s one that excites us as well. The Crusaders might take us a bit lightly; you never know.”

The Crusaders are strengthened by the return of centre Sonny Bill Williams, who exposed the Sharks in their 44-28 defeat at Twickenham, and wing Sean Maitland.

“Andy Ellis [scrumhalf] is playing very well and probably the best winger this year has been Zac Guildford,” said Plumtree. “There are genuine threats all over.”

Plumtree believes travel fatigue is a major concern today, but says the Sharks have gone to school on their London loss in March and that they are concentrating on an improved scrummaging and defensive performance.

“We have to be stronger in those areas to have a chance,” he said.

Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder has tapped into the emotion of the occasion and says they will be playing for earthquake-crippled Christchurch.

“The guys want to do it for the people at home who are really hurting,” he said. “Every obstacle that seems to get thrown in our way, the guys overcome it. The guys are fit and fresh. We’ll be dangerous.”

The Crusaders have the tools to play either tight, controlled rugby or an expansive, fluent game, and they thrive on turnovers. They scrum particularly well and their pack has been so effective as a unit that injured All Black captain and flank Richie McCaw has hardly been missed.

But it is their midfield, with Dan Carter operating in tandem with Williams and Robbie Fruean, that will be a major threat, and the Sharks know they have to be strong and confrontational on the gainline to break the Crusaders’ rhythm.

The inclusion of the formidable Willem Alberts for Ryan Kankowski in the backrow is clearly aimed at adding to the Sharks’ physicality in the heavy going and they will hope to disrupt the Crusaders from the opening bell.

Plumtree has added some variety and freshness to the Sharks’ attack by including Freddie Michalak at flyhalf and Pat Lambie at fullback. It worked a treat at on the hard, fast pitch at Loftus, but the wet and cold conditions of Nelson will demand a different, more conservative approach and Michalak’s tactical kicking will be under scrutiny.

The Sharks, if they are to defy the enormous odds, have to apply unrelenting pressure at forward, quickly close down Carter and Williams in midfield, and then make their tackles. And jet-lagged and after a poor week of preparation, they have to keep doing it for 80 minutes.

There are just too many boxes that have to be ticked on the day to suggest that the Sharks can repeat their Loftus heroics.

The Sharks’ physicality may initially ruffle the Crusaders, but they will just run out of puff and the seven-time champions are past masters at ruthlessly exploiting any advantage.

TEAMS

Crusaders: 15 Tom Marshall, 14 Sean Maitland, 13 Robbie Fruean, 12 Sonny Bill Williams,

11 Zac Guildford, 10 Daniel Carter,

9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read (captain), 7 Matt Todd, 6 George Whitelock, 5 Sam Whitelock,

4 Brad Thorn, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Corey Flynn, 1 Wyatt Crockett. Replacements: 16 Quentin MacDonald, 17 Ben Franks,

18 Luke Romano, 19 Jonathan Poff, 20 Kahn Fotuali’i,

21 Matt Berquist,

22 Ryan Crotty/Brent Ward.

Sharks: 15. Patrick Lambie, 14. JP Pietersen, 13. Stefan Terblanche (captain), 12. Meyer Bosman,

11. Lwazi Mvovo,

10. Frederic Michalak, 9. Charl McLeod,

8. Willem Alberts,

7. Jean Deysel,

6. Keegan Daniel,

5. Alistair Hargreaves, 4. Gerhard Mostert,

3. Jannie du Plessis, 2. Bismarck du Plessis, 1. Tendai Mtawarira. Replacements:

16. John Smit, 17. Eugene van Staden,

18. Ross Skeate,

19. Ryan Kankowski,

20. Jacques Botes,

21. Adrian Jacobs,

22. Louis Ludik.

Referee: Bryce Lawrence (NZ).

Kick-off: 9.35 am

The Sharks will have to deal with the Sonny Bill Williams factor when they meet the Crusaders in their Super Rugby quarter-final encounter in Nelson today.

Photo: gallo images

Is the prospect of beating Crusaders a bridge too far?

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