Sink ’em, Bismarck!

2009-02-13 00:00

IT may be the traditional day of romance, but love will go out the window at Newlands this evening when the Sharks take on the Stormers in their Super 14 opener.

The talk this week has been of war, the exchanging today of bumps and bruises rather than any tokens of affection, a replay — if words are turned into deeds — of the bloody massacre of St Valentine’s Day.

Both coaches have spoken of the critical need for their players to impose themselves physically from the first whistle of what promises to be a fiercely contested battle.

Sharks head coach John Plumtree believes that victory will go to the players, not with the superior game plan, but those who dominate physically.

“If it’s decided technically or tactically, I’d be surprised,” Plumtree said. “I think it will probably be won by sheer brute force. It will be a typical South African derby with two sides having a crack at each other with the team that dominates the collision coming out on top.”

Stormers coach Rassie Erasmus is confident that his forwards will match the Sharks in the set phases and that Schalk Burger and Duane Vermeulen will then prove dominant at the breakdown.

Significantly, Erasmus has opted for bulk both fore and aft, gambling on a burly flank in Nick Koster on the wing and opting for the powerful Vermeulen ahead of the controversial Luke Watson at number eight.

Not only have the selections added to the Stormers’ physical presence, but the absence of the unpopular Watson from the starting line-up may also take some of the fire out of the Sharks’ bellies.

Plumtree had been planning on his powerful all-Test front-row providing the Sharks with a critical edge in the frontline, but the disruptions of the past week — with four of his big men missing the pre-season games — has not helped his cause. Now he is banking on Deon Carstens, Jannie du Plessis and brother Bismarck, after their break, have enough puff between them to stand strongly next to John Smit for the full 80 minutes.

The Sharks will also be hoping that skinhead Schalk Burger, for the same reason, may be rusty (and that some of his strength at the breakdown will have disappeared along with his flowing locks).

Plumtree, speaking from the Durban airport yesterday as the squad prepared to fly to Cape Town, said the players were “excited but they know they are up against a very good, classy side and one we respect”.

He admitted that the Sharks are slightly underdone, “but that is also true of all the teams early in the season.”

“Everyone will be feeling their way at the start; we all need game time, but the rugby will still be very hard.”

The teams, both astutely coached, appear well matched and there are 12 Springboks evenly shared between the two backlines. The Sharks, if their powerful front-row forwards last the pace, should hold an edge in the scrums, but the Stormers have the most effective lineout jumper in the towering Bok lock Andries Bekker.

The dog-fight at the breakdown will be decisive and the Sharks have to match Burger and company in that area if they are to play their game and not spend a long afternoon defending.

The Sharks, Plumtree said, hope to pick up where they left off last season, staying with the effective, direct style. The Stormers will play typical Erasmus rugby, using the formula that worked with Free State. They will work for position, making liberal use of the boot, and they will be well-organised at forward and in defence.

Playing at home is an obvious advantage for the Stormers and it does make them slight favourites. Still, Sharks supporters will have awoken this morning with high expectation, not of cards, confectionery or flowers, but of Johann Muller leading his team to victory in the St Valentine’s Battle at Newlands. That would really make it a day to cherish.

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