'This is our final'

2011-06-18 00:00

THE Sharks need another Loftus miracle if their Super Rugby season, four months of blood, sweat and too few cheers, is not to end in failure and tears against the Bulls this evening.

The patchy Sharks are now in a must-win situation with their mid-competition losses to the Stormers and Bulls in Durban returning to haunt them.

“This is our final,” coach John Plumtree said this week and one expects the Sharks to lift their intensity and effort in a frantic attempt to salvage their season.

The Bulls, of course, have been in the same position — playing finals — for the last six weeks. Their poor start left them on the brink of failure and another loss would have ended the defence of their Super Rugby title.

But with Victor Matfield steering the ship — and dominating the lineouts — they have responded superbly to the challenge, and six wins on the bounce have left them massive favourites to secure a play-off spot at the expense of the Sharks today.

There is a slim chance that the Bulls and Sharks, currently fifth and sixth, could both stay in the top six, but it would need the travelling Brumbies to upset the seventh-placed Waratahs on their home patch in Sydney today.

The Sharks, blowing hot and cold this season, have been written off by most observers. Not without reason. The obvious talent in the squad has kept them in the top six throughout the marathon competition, but their rugby has lacked the consistency, inspiration and intensity of potential champions.

Plumtree, at the start of the season, said that the physicality of the Sharks was “a given”, but it was that area of their game that went missing against the Stormers (twice) and the Bulls at King’s Park.

Today they will have to muscle up to the Bulls, who are on form, at altitude and in front of a sell-out crowd of 50 000 already tasting victory.

The Bulls, mentally and physically, have the tools to do the job in a cup final, with the boot of flyhalf Morne Steyn behind a brawny pack driving them forward and translating territory into points.

But there remains a sneaky feeling that these Sharks will not go quietly.

They have upset massive odds, and formidable Bulls teams, at Loftus before, and, potentially anyway, they have the power and pace to worry them again.

They obviously have to suddenly pull something magical from the hat after four largely uninspiring months. They will have to start and finish well and be very good in between, said Plumtree.

Earlier this week the Sharks quietly slipped off to Rustenburg to prepare for the game.

Plumtree, casting sentiment aside, has selected boldly. The inclusion of Frederick Michalak at flyhalf and Pat Lambie at fullback is an attempt to add a fresh attacking edge to their backplay, while the selection of the Du Plessis brothers and Beast Mtawarira in the front-row has relegated Bok captain John Smit to the bench, but brings a physical presence to the pack.

There will be a fair amount of emotion lapping around the stands of Loftus, with Bulls legends Matfield, Bakkies Botha, Fourie du Preez and Danie Rossouw almost certainly playing their last game for the Bulls in Pretoria.

And with the Rugby World Cup players not involved in this year’s Currie Cup, this could be John Smit’s last game in a Sharks jersey if his team lose today.

The Sharks, a month ago at King’s Park, were bullied early on by the Bulls, missed a series of tackles and never really recovered in losing 32-23.

The lessons were obvious. Today, if they are to shake the Bulls from their comfort zone, they will have to stand up physically, make their tackles and then move the Bulls pack around the field.

The Sharks have see-sawed through 15 rounds of Super Rugby and have yet to produce a convincing, emphatic 80-minute performance. It really is now or never.

 

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