Time to break Cheetah jinx

2008-09-12 00:00

JOHN Plumtree, with the Cheetahs in his sights, does not want the Sharks to match the form that saw them beat the Blue Bulls in Durban last week — he wants them to better it.

The Sharks take on the Cheetahs at King’s Park this evening and, with a lead of three points on the log, could take a massive step towards hosting a semi-final by nailing down a rare Currie Cup win over the current champions.

The Sharks coach said yesterday that the Free Staters will be fielding “a very good side with a strong pack and a talented backline”.

Victory often obscures weakness, but Plumtree was not fooled by the 34-25 win over the Blue Bulls last Saturday.

“The challenge for us is to get better as the season progresses and as we near the play-offs,” he told the Weekend Witness.

“We saw against the Bulls that there is room or improvement. We conceded four tries last Saturday, which is worrying, and even in attack we were not accurate enough.”

Plumtree is concerned that the battle at the breakdown today will become a bunfight and he is looking to referee Willie Roos, who is returning to action after an extended injury break, to police that area closely.

The Cheetahs have said they will concentrate their efforts on negating the Sharks at the breakdown, slowing down their ball and breaking their attacking rhythm. They have succeeded in doing this in the past and they have the players to do it again, with an excellent loose trio in Duane Vermeulen, Springbok Juan Smith and Hendro Scholtz with another loose forward, Kabamba Floors, helping out from the wing.

“I will be speaking to Willie [Roos] and I hope he controls this area well, otherwise the whole game suffers,” Plumtree said.

The Sharks, while having few problems with the Cheetahs at Super 14 level, have a dreadful Currie Cup record against them and it was way back in 2003 that they last beat the Free Staters in this competition.

They lost 9-31, four tries to nil, in the first round game in Bloemfontein on July 19 but, of course, they have since turned their season around, playing a more direct style and building their confidence with wins over the Lions, Griquas (away), Western Province (away), Boland (away) and the Bulls.

They also have six changes to the team beaten in Bloemfontein and, at home and with Springboks spread throughout the team and crowding the reserve bench, they should have the winning of this match.

While the Cheetahs have been hurt by injury among their backs, their combative, well-equipped pack remains largely untouched and they will again do everything possible to snuff out the Sharks at source and prevent them tapping into the talents of their all-international backline.

Conversely, the Sharks pack, with Bok hooker Bismarck du Plessis and lock Steve Sykes adding grunt to the pack, and Beast Mtawarira lurking on the bench, hope to create the momentum and frontfoot ball which will allow them to break down the Cheetahs’ defences and bring Ruan Pienaar, Frederic Michalak, Francois Steyn, Waylon Murray, JP Pietersen, Odwa Ndungane and Stefan Terblanche into play.

Cheetahs coach Naka Drotske said his players had to put the defeat against Western Province last week behind them if they are to have a chance of hosting a semi-final. He has been quick to seize the tag of underdog, praising the Sharks as a balanced team with a sound defensive system.

“They’ve got plenty of game-breakers across the field,” he added.

His plan is to cut off these potential matchwinners from their forwards and the contest at the breakdown will be particularly fierce today.

The Sharks certainly have an excellent chance of breaking their remarkable run of Currie Cup defeats against Free State, but it will be another testing, tense and bruising evening with the King’s Park crowd hoping for a repeat of last Saturday’s spills and thrills.

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