Sharks to win at home

2012-02-25 00:00

THE Sharks are poised to lead the South African charge in the marathon 2012 Super Rugby tournament.

Like any team, the Sharks are not devoid of weaknesses. A notable lack of depth in the midfield threatens to hamper their 2012 campaign.

The Durban franchise also have the unenviable reputation as Super Rugby’s “nearly men”, having been bridesmaids on three occasions — the most infamous of heartbreaks being the last-minute defeat to the Bulls at Kings Park the last time they reached the final in 2007.

However, despite losing the 2011 Currie Cup final to the Lions, things are looking up for the Sharks. After a flawless start to the inaugural 15-team tournament last year with four consecutive victories, a mid-season slump — which coincided with Pat Lambie sustaining an injury — resulted in the Sharks losing their grip on the South African Conference.

A strong finish to the regular season, with a come-from-behind draw with the Lions and victories over the Waratahs, Cheetahs and Bulls in their final four fixtures saw the Sharks sneak into the finals series.

Their season came to an abrupt end against the Crusaders — who they crucially won’t face this season unless it’s in the play-offs — in Nelson, however, the sixth-place finish was a vast improvement on their lowly ninth place the previous year.

The lesson learned last year was simple: To have any chance of winning the cross-continental competition, a team has to clinch their national conference. This is where the Sharks’ focus should be. The brittle state of affairs at the Stormers and rebuilding of the Bulls open the door for the Sharks to surge to the summit of the South African conference and assure a home play-off.

The challenge will be not to fall too far behind in the first half of the regular season, when the Sharks play just a solitary match at home — against the defending champion Reds.

Vital away fixtures against the Bulls (last night) and the Stormers precede a four-week Antipodean excursion which includes clashes against the Waratahs, Blues and Chiefs. Five physical and defining local derbies, three of which will be played in Durban, in the lead-up to the finals series will largely determine the Sharks’ fate.

Adding an interesting dynamic to the equation is the fact that the Sharks will have a five-week lay-off prior to their final two regular season games against the Bulls and Cheetahs due to the incoming England tour and a bye.

How the Sharks handle this lengthy lay-off and finish the regular season, possibly without a handful of fatigued Springboks, could make or break their season.

They certainly have the talent at their disposal to be legitimate title contenders, with a near all-Springbok starting line-up consisting of a powerful pack and potent backline.

The loss of Tendai Mtawarira for the majority of the Super Rugby season due to a fractured ankle will leave a gaping hole in the usually formidable front row. Eugene van Staden’s departure to French club Biarritz adds to the lack of depth at loosehead, leaving greenhorns Wiehahn Herbst, Dale Chadwick and Julian Redelinghuys to vie for the vacant number one jersey.

In the backline, coach John Plumtree has put his faith in Lambie to pull the strings at flyhalf, and the youngster’s willingness to attack the gain line and crisp distribution suits the Sharks’ possession-based style to a tee.

A wealth of back row depth will allow Jean Deysel or Willem Alberts to provide cover at lock if necessary, while new recruit Tim Whitehead will have an important role to play in shoring up the midfield.

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