Sharks stride into the Last Chance Saloon

2012-05-12 00:00

THE King’s Park crowd are hoping for a generous helping of style and flair, but the Sharks and their coach, John Plumtree, will settle for Super Rugby victory without the frills when they face the Western Force in Durban this evening.

The pragmatic Sharks, opting for territory and penalties rather than entertainment and tries, ground out victory over the Highlanders last Saturday and Plumtree has promised more of the same if circumstances demand it.

Of course, the Sharks were helped by the naive Highlanders who had the majority of the possession on the day but played most of the game in their own half and kept Pat Lambie in kicking range.

The schizophrenic Sharks have this season developed an unfortunate habit of following a promising win with a disappointing defeat, and tactically their coach has changed tack, taking a more direct, conservative route to victory. He has reminded the players all week that a loss today — at home and to a Force team lying 13th on the log — will almost certainly end their Super Rugby challenge for another year.

The Perth-based franchise showed, in running the Cheetahs close in Bloemfontein a week ago, that they have the ability to make life exceedingly uncomfortable for the Sharks tonight.

And Plumtree knows better than most that nothing can be taken for granted in a tough competition and particularly when the inconsistent, moody Sharks are in one corner.

“The Force are a well-drilled outfit,” he said this week. They don’t go away. Yes, they have lost a few games but most have been close and they are second highest [to the Highlanders] in ball-carrying stats.

“They have the ability to keep possession for long periods of time and they have the best lineout in the competition. This Force team can play.”

The Perth-based team have a talented backrow with the hugely influential David Pocock alongside fellow-Wallabies Richard Brown and Matt Hodgson, while veteran Test lock Nathan Sharpe adds a hard edge to their tight five.

The Force pack will also be up for a scrap with their forward coach, Nick Stiles, saying they had prepared for a major battle up front.

“The Sharks scrum is very strong, I think the strongest South African scrum. Up front they’re very physical,” he said.

“They’re very abrasive with their tackling and in the work they do at the breakdown.

“Their physicality is a really good challenge for us.”

Plumtree will be hoping Stiles knows what he is talking about and that his Sharks live up to their reputation.

Again, in a game where the individual’s interpretation plays a major role, the referee will have a significant role to play. South African Mark Lawrence is the man in the middle today and Sharks supporters will hardly need reminding that he blew their team to distraction when they had the breakdown blues at the start of the season.

But Plumtree and the Sharks are no doubt hoping that he succeeds where his namesake, Lawrence of the Antipodes, failed at the Rugby World Cup when Pocock was afforded the freedom of the breakdown against the Springboks.

If the breakdown is a shambles, if momentum is lost and the ball is won slowly, then the Sharks, and flyhalf Pat Lambie, will again resort to the kicking game in pursuit of Plumtree’s only objective — victory.

TEAMS:

Sharks – 15 Louis Ludik, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Paul Jordaan, 12 Tim Whitehead, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Patrick Lambie, 9 Charl McLeod, 8 Keegan Daniel (c), 7 Marcell Coetzee, 6 Jacques Botes, 5 Anton Bresler, 4 Steven Sykes, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Tendai Mtawarira,

Replacements: 16 Craig Burden, 17 Wiehahn Herbst, 18 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 19 Jean Deysel, 20 Ryan Kankowski, 21 Frederic Michalak, 22 Meyer Bosman

Force – 15 Alfie Mafi, 14 Sam Wara, 13 Nick Cummins, 12 Winston Stanley, 11 Napolioni Nalaga, 10 10 David Harvey, 9 Brett Sheehan, 8 Matt Hodgson, 7 David Pocock (c), 6 Richard Brown, 5 Nathan Sharpe, 4 Toby Lynn, 3 Salesi Ma’afu, 2 Nathan Charles, 1 Pek Cowan.

Replacements: 16 Elvis Taione, 17 Salesi Manu, 18 Phoenix Battye, 19 Lachlan McCaffrey, 20 Josh Holmes, 21 Ben Seymour, 22 Rory Sidey.

Referee: Mark Lawrence (RSA). Kick-off: 5.05 pm.

This weekend’s fixtures (home team first, SA times):

Today: Highlanders v Hurricanes 9.35 am; Rebels v Crusaders 11.40 am; Sharks v Force 5.05 pm; Stormers v Cheetahs 7.10 pm.

Tomorrow: Reds v Chiefs 8.10 am

Bye: Brumbies

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