Sharks turn to Springboks to create final impetus

2011-10-29 00:00

THE Sharks are looking to their clutch of internationals to trump the collective strength of the Golden Lions in the Currie Cup final at Ellis Park this evening.

The Sharks, chasing back-to-back Currie Cup titles and a piece of history, will field a squad crowded with past and present internationals while the well-organised Lions are relying on the cohesion and enthusiasm to carry them to their first Currie Cup title in 12 years.

The Lions, untouched by Springbok demands this season, have progressed seamlessly from Super Rugby to the Currie Cup while the Sharks had to dig into youthful reserves to cover holes left by national commitments. While continuity and consistency has been a feature of a successful Lions’ season, the Sharks have stuttered, their rugby lacking rhythm and conviction. Still, their young players helped them hang on to second place on the log and now the timely return of their Rugby World Cup Springboks has added experience and power to the mix.

The Sharks, Currie Cup winners in 2008 and 2010, are playing in their third final in four years. They have the pedigree and the experience; the Lions have the advantage of playing at home and at altitude.

No one is reading too much into the Sharks’ 53-9 win over the Lions at King’s Park a fortnight ago. The Lions, fielding their reserves, lacked incentive and intensity and they proved easy pickings for the Sharks.

This will all change tonight. The Lions know that they have to match the Sharks physically, in the set piece, at the breakdown and on the gainline, particularly if the weather forecasters are right and this contest is decided in the rain. If the Lions still attempt to play their high tempo game, using the width of the field, the Sharks will want to force them to run the ball from deep and fiddle about behind the advantage line.

The Lions’ strengths are in moving players into space and in their ability to force turnovers at the tackle; the Sharks will look to their big men, Bismarck du Plessis, Beast Mtawarira, Wilem Alberts and Jean Deysel, to provide momentum and breach the gainline.

Lions coach John Mitchell has highlighted the importance of the set piece. The depleted Lions struggled for primary possession in their heavy Durban loss, but they have all their big men back while the signing of World Cup prop CJ van der Linde has also boosted their scrum.

“The advantage line will be important both on attack and defence,” said Mitchell this week. “So the accuracy at the set piece is critical in creating pressure. It all starts with the tight five.”

The Sharks have an all-Bok front-row (the Du Plessis brothers and Mtawarira) and they would expect to boss the scrums. But coach John Plumtree is expecting a mighty challenge.

“The Lions will be ferocious but so will we and that’s what finals rugby is all about. The team that can cope with the pressure and sustain it for 80 minutes will come through.”

There is a fascinating duel at flyhalf where the Sharks’ Frederic Michalak, an experienced French international, clashes with the Lions’ skilful young Elton Jantjies. The pair obviously have pivotal roles to play, not only in creating chances for their outside backs, but also in kicking at goal.

The Lions have certainly had the more effective backline during the Currie Cup with Jaco Taute, Doppies la Grange, Alwyn Hollenbach and Michael Killian all making an impact. But the Sharks, behind their brawny Springboks, have shown improved form in recent weeks and the return of Springboks Pat Lambie and JP Pietersen has added to their attacking options.

Still, the Lions will target the Sharks’ backs while Plumtree will hope his muscular pack take charge up front.

For those who believe in omens, the Sharks and Lions have met in four Currie Cup finals over the last two decades. The Sharks won in 1992 and 1996 while the Lions triumphed in 1993 and 1999 but, on all four occasions, the home team lost in their own backyard. Further, the Sharks have won back-to-back titles only once, 15 years ago when they beat Western Province in Durban in the 1995 final and a year later beat the Lions at Ellis Park.

Last year the Sharks thumped WP in the final at King’s Park and will be hoping that history keeps repeating itself at Ellis Park today.

But the Sharks do not have to look for auspicious signs from above to win this final (though, of course, rain will favour them rather than the Lions). They have the forward power to dictate the mood and flow of the game and they can do it on their own. But they will have to be accurate, make their tackles and, at altitude, keep playing for 80 minutes.

If the Sharks perform to their potential, and tap into the talents of their dozen Springboks, they will defy the Lions and most neutral observers who believe that Mitchell’s consistent, cohesive Lions, playing at home, will prevail.

TEAMS

Lions: 15-Jaco Taute, 14-Deon van Rensburg, 13-Doppies la Grange, 12-Alwyn Hollenbach, 11-Michael Killian, 10-Elton Jantjies, 9-Michael Bondesio, 8-Joshua Strauss, 7-Michael Rhodes, 6-Derick Minnie, 5-Franco van der Merwe, 4-Wikus van Heerden, 3-Pat Cilliers, 2-Bandise Maku, 1-CJ van der Linde.

Reserves: 16-Martin Bezuidenhout, 17-Jacobie Adriaanse/JC Janse van Rensburg, 18-Warren Whiteley, 19-Cobus Grobbelaar, 20-Butch James, 21-Dyan des Fountain, 22-James Kamana.

Sharks: 15-Pat Lambie, 14-Odwa Ndungane, 13-Stefan Terblanche, 12-Marius Joubert, 11-JP Pietersen, 10-Freddie Michalak, 9-Conrad Hoffmann, 8-Ryan Kankowski, 7-Willem Alberts, 6-Keegan Daniel, 5-Ross Skeate, 4-Jean Deysel, 3-Jannie du Plessis, 2-Bismarck du Plessis, 1-Tendai Mtawarira.

Replacements: 16-Craig Burden, 17-Eugene van Staden, 18-Marcell Coetzee, 19-Alistair Hargreaves, 20-Ross Cronje, 21-Adrian Jacobs, 22-Lwazi Mvovo.

Referee: Mark Lawrence. Kick-off: 5.30 pm.

Curtain-raisers: U21 final – Sharks v Blue Bulls (2.30pm). U19 final - Lions v Blue Bulls (12.30pm).

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