Sharks need to be Forceful

2010-05-14 00:00

A SUPER 14 campaign that started with a discordant squeak will end with a resounding roar if the Sharks beat the Western Force in their final game at King’s Park tonight.

The Sharks, after starting with five losses, four by five points or less, were down at 12th on the Super 14 log as early as March 20 and their title challenge was already over. But, to the credit of coach John Plumtree, the players kept their heads high and they have now won six of their last seven games.

It is an indication of how heavy the log-jam has been in the Super 14 that the impressive run of victories has only lifted the Sharks to ninth spot on the standings and they can only improve their position by one if they win today.

Still, Plumtree’s players have provided a silver lining to the cloud which has hung over the Sharks ever since their 18-19 first-round loss to the Chiefs. The backs are still struggling to provide the slick, accurate finish which transforms good teams into championship material, but they have defended capably and willingly while the forwards, strong in the set pieces and physical at the breakdown, have turned the season on its head.

Their last three appearances at King’s Park, and wins over the Queensland Reds, Auckland Blues and Stormers, have also rejuvenated their supporters but Plumtree, more than anyone, knows that these Sharks, who have to grind out victories, can take nothing for granted.

The Sharks have turned the second half of the season into a success only because their intensity has papered over the cracks, the attacking limitations and shortage of pace, behind the scrum.

After the two big, bruising local derbies, against first the Bulls and then the Stormers, the Sharks have somehow to lift themselves again.

We saw last week that even a talented, well-balanced and organised outfit like the second-placed Stormers can be exposed if they are off-colour on the day.

“We have to be sure we arrive ready and up for the Force because they’ll come at us,” Plumtree said. “They will bounce back from the Cheetahs defeat, no doubt of that. They’ve beaten some big teams, like the Crusaders and the Stormers, and they have won four of their last six games.”

Plumtree highlighted the strengths of the Force: a highly effective, physical backrow headed by Wallaby David Pocock; a veteran captain and Test lock in Nathan Sharpe; experienced and capable backs in centre Ryan Cross and flyhalf David Hill and one of Australia’s most exciting prospects in fullback James O’Connor. And in charge of a potentially threatening combination is Plumtree’s friend and old rival John Mitchell.

The Force’s coach is in confident mood and said yesterday he had selected his most powerful team of the season for the Sharks match, beefing up his pack by adding prop Pek Cowan, hooker Ben Whittaker and lock Bruce McCalman to the mix.

“We’re coming up against what we feel will be a physical pack and a physical night of rugby,” said Mitchell. “Not only do we have to meet that head on, but also find a way to outsmart them.

“This is probably the strongest mix that we can put together based on what we have seen throughout the year,” he said. “King’s Park is the only South African venue in our short history that we haven’t nailed, so there is a challenge there.”

“Losing or coming close is not an option. I’ve got no doubt that this group will be up and ready to take on the Sharks,” said Mitchell.

The crowds will come to King’s Park tonight expecting the Sharks to repeat their heroics of a week ago when flank Jean Deysel, their powerful front-row and halves Rory Kockott and Ruan Pienaar provided the impetus for victory over the Stormers.

But, if they do a Stormer and arrive without fire in the belly and glint in the eye, they could end their season as they started it, on a losing note, and that will spoil all the excellent recovery work of the past eight weeks.

TEAMS

Sharks — 15 Patrick Lambie, 14 Odwa Ndungane, 13 Stefan Terblanche, 12 Riaan Swanepoel, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Ruan Pienaar, 9 Rory Kockott, 8 Ryan Kankowski, 7 Jean Deysel, 6 Jacques Botes, 5 Alistair Hargreaves, 4 Steven Sykes, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 John Smit (c), 1 Beast Mtawarira.

Replacements: 16 Craig Burden, 17 Pat Cilliers, 18 Wilhelm Steenkamp, 19 Keegan Daniel, 20 Charl McLeod, 21 Andy Goode, 22 Andries Strauss.

Force – 15 James O’Connor, 14 Nick Cummins, 13 Mitch Inman, 12 Ryan Cross, 11 Cameron Shepherd, 10 David Hill, 9 Brett Sheehan, 8 Richard Brown, 7 David Pocock, 6 Matt Hodgson, 5 Nathan Sharpe (c), 4 Ben McCalman, 3 Tim Fairbrother, 2 Ben Whittaker, 1 Pek Cowan.

Replacements: 16 Nathan Charles, 17 Matt Dunning, 18 Sam Wykes, 19 Tom Hockings, 20 Justin Turner, 21 Sam Harris, 22 Mark Bartholomeusz.

Referee: Pro Legoete (SA)

Kick-off: 7.10 pm.

Super 14 weekend preview, fixtures and standings, page 27.

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