Sharks start title defence

2011-07-12 00:00

THE Sharks, or what is left of them, start the defence of their Currie Cup title against the Blue Bulls at King’s Park on Saturday evening with the competition providing a searching test both of their depth and the coaching ability of John Plumtree.

Springbok demands, injuries and the lure of the euro will deny the Sharks 16 of their first-choice players, at least for the first couple of weeks when the away games in the Tri-Nations are being played in Australia and New Zealand.

The Sharks have nine players in the watered-down Tri-Nations tour squad, while four others (the Du Plessis brothers, JP Pietersen and Willem Alberts) have been medically boarded. Locks Steven Sykes and Gerhard Mostert have left to join European clubs and scrumhalf Conrad Hoffman will be out for another month with his elbow injury.

The Sharks can expect to regain a number of players after the Tri-Nations tour and the Sydney Test on July 23 and the one in Wellington on July 30.

One of the wings, probably Odwa Ndungane, along with centre Adi Jacobs, scrumhalf Charl McLeod, lock Alistair Hargreaves, number eight Ryan Kankowski and flank Jean Deysel, could well return to the Sharks when all the senior Boks are back in the mix for the home leg of the Tri-Nations in August.

But this does mean that Plumtree will have to dig into his reserves for the opening three games against the Bulls (July 16) in Durban, the away clash with the Pumas (July 22) and Free State Cheetahs (at King’s Park on July 30).

There should be some relief for the tough away game against Griquas on August 5, but that will depend on how the Sharks’ Boks perform Down Under.

Plumtree, who only heard on Friday just who will be missing, has just a week to work with his new-look side and he will have to cover for four missing front-rowers, three locks, three wings, his first-choice halfbacks and a couple of loose forwards.

And yet he is surprisingly well off and, with some mixing and matching, could still field a team containing 13 or 14 players who have seen Super Rugby action.

The one exception would be on the wing where JP Pietersen, Lwazi Mvovo and Ndungane are missing. He can cover one wing by moving Louis Ludik from fullback and then using Stefan Terblanche back in his old position at the back.

Mark Richards or Bok sevens hero Sbura Sithole could play on the other wing.

Former Springbok centre Marius Joubert, who has joined the Sharks, could partner Meyer Bosman in the midfield, though another Springbok sevens player, young Paul Jordaan, is also challenging.

Plumtree has Frederic Michalak at flyhalf and has the option of switching the Frenchman to scrumhalf to accommodate Jacques-Louis Potgieter in the pivot role.

With McLeod away with the Boks and Hoffman injured, the lightning-quick Cobus Reinach, Ross Cronje or Michalak could be at scrumhalf.

Plumtree will be looking to a couple of exciting if relatively inexperienced forwards to fill the substantial holes up front.

Keegan Daniel, who somehow keeps playing second fiddle to Bulls flank Deon Stegmann — at least, in the eyes of De Villiers — Jacques Botes and Marcell Coetzee will probably be the backrow for the opening couple of games with Ross Skeate and Anton Bresler in the second row and Jandre Marais providing back-up.

Eugene van Staden and Wiehahn Herbst are the likely props with Dale Chadwick and Julian Redeling­huys waiting in the wings. Craig Burden and Kyle Cooper will bring their contrasting strengths to the hooking berth.

“It’s a huge opportunity for a lot of youngsters,” said assistant coach Hugh Reece-Edwards, “and there’s a lot of excitement, a lot of talent along with a few old heads.

“So we’re probably going to have a younger side than we have had before, not necessarily in years, but in heads in terms of experience … It’s fantastic when you come to training and there are new faces. The older guys have a huge responsibility bringing the younger ones through while the younger ones have huge boots to fill.”

The match against the Blue Bulls, who will also be missing close to a full team of first-choice players, kicks off at 5.05 pm on Saturday.

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