Testy waters as Boks drain squad

2010-06-19 00:00

FLYHALF Steve Meyer could make a dramatic return to top-flight rugby as the Sharks look to paper over the cracks for this year’s Currie Cup competition.

After the world-class Argentinian flyhalf Juan Hernandez pulled up clutching his back early in January, Meyer was rushed in from French club Perpignan where he had been playing for three years.

But just weeks later, and on the eve of the Super 14 opener against the Chiefs, the 25-year-old Meyer, citing “personal reasons”, suddenly quit the game.

Now he is back, without a contract, but keen to train with the Sharks, work at his match fitness and resurrect a blossoming career.

The Sharks have spent most of 2010 scrambling about in search of a talented playmaker at 10. Ruan Pienaar was a ready­-made replacement, but head coach John Plumtree committed himself to returning the multi-talented Springbok to his favoured position at scrumhalf.

The news that Pienaar, apparently miffed at his treatment at Springbok level, is determined to spend World Cup year playing for Ulster has now further reduced the Sharks’ options.

Quality flyhalves are in short supply, particularly as the World Cup looms and pro­vinces and franchises tie players into contracts. The Sharks still hope that Butch James will return, particularly if Springbok coach Peter de Villiers and SA Rugby agree that he still has a role to play at next year’s Rugby World Cup.

The Sharks, according to the rugby grapevine, are also close to signing the Cheetahs’ Bok, Meyer Bosman, who can play both flyhalf and inside centre, but he will only be here for the Super 15 next year.

But for the moment, and while Pienaar is involved with the Boks, it seems that either Meyer or Monty Dumond will fill the flyhalf gap.

There has been speculation that Patrick Lambie, who played flyhalf in his formative years at school but has made an immediate impact at fullback for the Sharks, could be switched to the pivot role. Plumtree has said that he wants the skilful Lambie to settle into the big time before testing his versatility, but the former Michaelhouse player is likely to be given a run at flyhalf at some stage in the Currie Cup.

But it is the depth of the Sharks that will be tested in the opening weeks of the Currie Cup. They start their campaign against Griquas in Kimberley on July 10 and a week later are at home to Super14 and Currie Cup champion Bulls.

Plumtree, who this week confirmed he will spend at least three more years in Durban, is missing more than a whole rugby team at present.

There are a whopping 10 players on the injury list, five others (John Smit, Jannie du Plessis, Ryan Kankwoski, Alistair Hargreaves and Pienaar) are with the current Springbok squad, and Johann Muller and Deon Carstens have departed for foreign fields.

The injury list is depressingly long, even after the month’s break since the Super 14 ended. Included on the list of walking wounded are JP Pietersen, Odwa Ndungane, Adi Jacobs, Louis Ludik and Lionel Mapoe among the backs, and forwards Bismarck du Plessis, Jean Deysel, Willem Alberts and Gerhard Mostert.

New lock signing Ross Skeate also has a niggle and he will only be available from August.

Plumtree is back in New Zealand, visiting family and attending a coaching course, but he will be back next week and has a couple of days with the squad before the compulsory friendly against the Falcons in Kempton Park next Friday.

Assistant Sharks coach Grant Bashford has been in charge for the past three weeks and is impressed by the work ethic and determination of those players still standing.

“We did not have a lot of luck in the Super 14, but our finishing was often poor and we missed scoring opportunities, particularly in those opening weeks,” he said this week.

The emphasis in the Sharks’ preparations for the Currie Cup has been on conditioning while working on skills and finishing.

“We don’t know when many of our injured players will be back and we are hoping to have some ready after the first few weeks of the Currie Cup.

“We also don’t know what demands the Springboks will make on our reserve players in their squad, guys like Alistair Hargreaves, Ruan Pienaar and Ryan Kankowski, or whether any of our Boks will be released after the Tri-Nations and before the tour of the UK. We are planning with what we have.”

But a feature of the Sharks’ recent seasons has been the success that Plumtree and his coaches have enjoyed with young, emerging players in a depleted squad. Last year, in spite of losing more than half their players to the Springboks, the Sharks ended top of the Currie Cup log before their disappointing home loss to Free State in the semi-finals.

In spite of the many injuries, and the Bok commitments, Plumtree can still start the season with a competitive team and one which will grow stronger with every passing week as players return from the medical tent.

He could have Lambie at fullback, Ndungane (if he is over his rib problem) and the promising Lwazi Mvovo on the wings, the Super 14 pairing of Stefan Terblanche and Riaan Swanepoel (or Andries Strauss) in midfield, and either Dumond or Meyer partnering Rory Kockott at halfback with Charl McLeod covering scrumhalf from the bench.

Regular Super 14 loose forwards Jacques Botes and Keegan Daniel are likely to be joined by Michael Rhodes until Deysel, Willem Alberts and Kankowksi make their return, while Steve Sykes’s partner in the second-row could be Anton Bresler unless Hargreaves is released.

The Sharks will remain powerful in the front-row with Springbok loosehead Beast Mtawarira, one of the bigger political pawns in South African sport, joined by the energetic Craig Burden and Patric Cilliers in the front-row, with Wiehahn Herbst and Kyle Cooper providing back-up at prop and hooker.

It promises to be a desperate battle for points in the early weeks of the Currie Cup, but the Sharks have the players and the coaching staff to ensure that they again reach the play-offs of the Currie Cup.

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