The bruisers are back

2011-10-22 00:00

THE Sharks, with fresh impetus, a herd of Springboks and playing at home, will fancy their chances of downing the Free State Cheetahs at King’s Park this afternoon and advancing to the Currie Cup final.

The Sharks, who have reached the semi-finals for the last five years, taking the title in 2008 and 2010, have been South Africa’s most consistent Currie Cup team over recent seasons.

This year they have battled to play with control and conviction, squeaking to a number of narrow victories, but the return of their Springboks last week has added power and skill to their squad and boosted their confidence.

Coach John Plumtree has added all seven Rugby World Cup Boks to his starting line-up today, and the pack, with the Test front-row of the Du Plessis brothers and Beast Mtawarira, along with Willem Alberts in the backrow, should provide the Sharks with a decisive, bruising edge in the forward exchanges.

There was further good news late yesterday when burly backrower Jean Deysel, named as a lock for today’s game but nursing a groin problem, came through a late fitness test. Adi Jacobs and Lwazi Mvovo (hamstring strains) had been declared fit earlier in the week.

“They’re all fit to go,” team doctor Ewoudt van der Linde told the Weekend Witness last night.

Free State coach Naka Drotské admitted that half the battle was convincing his players that the Sharks, and all their Boks, could be beaten. “Sometimes it’s difficult to get a young player to believe he can win against these players. So our biggest challenge this week has been to get our players to realise that it has happened before [beating the Sharks in Durban] and it can happen again,” he said.

Plumtree, in turn, will be wary.

It was just a month ago that his Sharks were thumped 53-32 by the Free Staters in the pool game in Bloemfontein.

The Sharks’ defence , uncharacteristically, went missing that day, while scrums were untidy and scrumhalf Conrad Hoffman was strangely indecisive behind the pack. Forewarned was not forearmed and the Sharks were undone by Free State’s rookie flyhalf Johan Goosen and his “gedrop, geplace and gescore” — just as Frik du Preez did all those years ago — earned him 29 points.

He also ran the inside channel effectively and certainly Sharks halfbacks Hoffman and Frederic Michalak will be tested this afternoon.

Sharks captain Keegan Daniel said Cheetahs flank Ashley Johnson is another major threat.

“They have a talented loose trio, but we all know what Ashley can do with ball in hand. He’s big but mobile and gets the ball over the advantage line. We’ll have to pay extra attention to him.”

While the Cheetahs are fielding a dozen of the side that won in Bloem, the Sharks have had close to a complete makeover as players have returned and only halves Michalak and Hoffman retain their places. They appear to have the right balance between power and pace, but their midfield problems have persisted all season, and veterans Marius Joubert and Stefan Terblanche will be tested today by the Cheetahs’ Robert Ebersohn and former Shark Andries Strauss.

The young Sharks battled in the scrum last month in Bloem, falling out of favour with referee Marius Jonker, and Plumtree is looking to his Springbok front-row to provide the most stable of platforms this afternoon. Certainly hooker Bismarck du Plessis, finally clear of John Smit’s shadow, will be in bristling mood.

The Sharks have been down this road before, fielding the potentially far stronger team in front of their home crowd, but then failing to take their scoring opportunities and losing to the enthusiastic Free Staters and a talented goalkicker.

Plumtree has emphasised the point all week.

“We will need to play really well to beat this Cheetahs side. The players understand the history between the two teams and know they can’t just turn up and expect to win.”

Just under half the Sharks team will still be thinking that they should still be in Auckland and contesting the RWC final tomorrow. But victory today will secure them a place in the Currie Cup final — and they could even be back home in Durban next Saturday if Western Province overturn the Lions in the late semi-final at Ellis Park this evening.

And that, at least, will bring some relief at the end of a dark month.

TEAMS

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

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

Free State Cheetahs: 15 Hennie Daniller, 14 Ryno Benjamin, 13 Robert Ebersohn, 12 Andries Strauss, 11 Cameron Jacobs, 10 Johan Goosen, 9 Piet van Zyl, 8 Boom Prinsloo, 7 Ashley Johnson, 6 Pieter Labuschagne, 5 Izak van der Westhuizen, 4 Philip van der Walt, 3 WP Nel, 2 Adriaan Strauss (captain), 1 Marcel van der Merwe.

Replacements: 16 Hercu Liebenberg, 17 Trevor Nyakane, 18 Wilhelm Steenkamp, 19 Johan Wessels, 20 Tewis de Bruyn, 21 Sias Ebersohn, 22 Nico Scheepers.

Kick-off: 2.30pm. Referee: Marius Jonker.

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