Slight relief for Plum

2013-05-04 00:00

THERE were late injury scares for both the Sharks and the Highlanders in Dunedin yesterday, but this time it was John Plumtree who emerged from a series of fitness tests with a smile.

Springboks JP Pietersen (ankle) and Frans Steyn (knee) were both forced to undergo late checks yesterday and have been cleared to play.

The Highlanders’ Jamie Joseph, who once coached alongside Plumtree in Wellington, was not as lucky. Veteran All Black centre Ma’a Nonu was yesterday a late withdrawal from his team with a knee injury.

The bad news for the struggling Highlanders was tempered by the much-anticipated return of composed, 30-year-old All Black centre Tamati Ellison following a shoulder operation, which was expected to keep him out until July.

Nonu is replaced by Shaun Treeby, who returns after an eight-week injury break to form a new midfield pairing with Ellison.

Colin Slade, who replaced the injured Dan Carter in the 2011 Rugby World Cup, is recalled at flyhalf and a shortage of wings has resulted in centre Phil Burleigh playing out of position.

Joseph had not meddled with the pack, which includes All Blacks in captain Andrew Hore, lock Brad Thorn and prop Tony Woodcock.

This time, and in contrast to a week ago, the Sharks are expected to win. Plumtree mixed and matched his jet-lagged squad against the Chiefs in Hamilton last Saturday and was delighted with the way they fought back from a dreadful start and ran in four tries against the Super Rugby champions.

Today he has close to his strongest available side (if, for a moment, you can ignore the many injuries) with players returning to full fitness and others settled and rested after a week’s break.

Plumtree has also made it abundantly clear that if the Sharks want to have any chance of topping the South African conference they have to beat the log’s bottom team.

He knows as well as anyone that no New Zealand team will roll over, particularly one that has genuine potential but has lost eight successive games in their worst Super Rugby run and has been roundly booed by their home support.

The Highlanders, who started the season as one of the New Zealand favourites to reach the playoffs, are desperate to end their horror run on their home paddock.

Plumtree said this week that the Joseph’s squad could not reach the playoffs “but they can certainly spoil the party for some of the teams they come up against over the next few weeks”.

The Sharks will at least take to the Forsythe Barr Stadium with their heads up. Pietersen brings power both to the attack and defence and there is genuine pace in Lwazi Mvovo on the other wing.

A positive feature in recent weeks has been the form of fullback Riaan Viljoen. The former Griqua may lack genuine pace but he has the ability to find space rather than take the ball back into contact.

The Highlanders are too talented a bunch to keep flapping about feebly at the bottom of the pool.They will come to life at some stage this season. Plumtree, his players and their supporters back home will be hoping that day comes later rather than sooner.

TEAMS

Highlanders: 15. Ben Smith, 14. Phil Burleigh, 13. Tamati Ellison, 12. Shaun Treeby, 11. Hosea Gear, 10. Colin Slade, 9. Aaron Smith, 8. TJ Ioane, 7. John Hardie, 6. Jarrad Hoeata, 5. Josh Bekhuis, 4. Brad Thorn, 3. Chris King, 2. Andrew Hore (captain), 1. Tony Woodcock

Replacements: 16. Liam Coltman, 17. Ma’afu Fia, 18. Elliot Dixon, 19. Joe Wheeler, 20. Fumiaka Tanaka, 21. Hayden Parker, 22. Jason Emery

Sharks: 15. Riaan Viljoen, 14. JP Pietersen, 13. Francois Steyn, 12. Meyer Bosman, 11. Lwazi Mvovo, 10. Pat Lambie, 9. Charl McLeod, 8. Tera Mtembu, 7. Marcell Coetzee, 6. Keegan Daniel (captain), 5. Franco van der Merwe, 4. Pieter-Steph du Toit, 3. Jannie du Plessis, 2. Kyle Cooper, 1. Wiehahn Herbst

Replacements: 16. Craig Burden, 17. JC Janse van Rensburg, 18. Anton Bresler, 19. Jean Deysel, 20. Tian Meyer, 21. Piet Lindeque, 22. Derick Minnie.

Kick-off: 9.35 am (SA time). Referee: Steve Walsh.

Remaining weekend’s fixtures (home first, SA times)

Today: Highlanders v Sharks 9.35 am, Force v Reds 11.40 am, Kings v Waratahs 5.05 pm, Bulls v Hurricanes 7.10 pm.

Tomorrow: Brumbies v Crusaders 7.05 am.

Bye: Cheetahs

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