Will Beast tame the Lions?

2009-02-20 00:00

The Sharks go in search of the perfect farewell gift when they take on an energetic Lions outfit in a Super 14 outing in Durban tonight.

John Plumtree’s team pop in briefly to see their home supporters at King’s Park tonight before heading Down Under tomorrow on their four-match tour. It will be another five weeks before the Sharks are again back in Durban —on March 28 they play the Brumbies at King’s Park — and they then have six matches in South Africa and one in Bloemfontein to complete their round robin programme. In terms of the draw, that is as good as it gets in this tough competition.

A second win today will leave the Sharks in excellent shape ahead of their travels; conversely, a defeat at home will undo all the hard work and the valuable away points secured by winning at Newlands a week ago.

Plumtree said yesterday that there were no late problems in the Sharks squad, but he was concerned about the Durban heat.

“We are expecting it to be hot and humid and that will impact on how both teams play the game and how they attack. It will also bring the kicking game into play.”

The Lions have a potent mix of players, with a strong scrum, excellent scrappers for the ball at the tackle and powerful runners among the backs. Wing Henno Mentz, who failed to land a contract with the Sharks this year, will be back hoping to prove a point on his old home ground, and he showed lively form against the Cheetahs. He has one of the world’s leading centres in Jaque Fourie on his inside and a former Bok in Ashwin Willemse on the other wing.

Plumtree believes the set pieces will be critical, particularly if the conditions slow the pace of the game and turn the contest into a sluggish dog-fight.

“The Lions are a settled unit under Loffie [Eloff], they know how they want to play and they have some big, powerful forwards and a pack which will not be dominated too often this season,” he told Weekend Witness.

Loosehead Heinke van der Merwe, another former Shark, is key to their scrummaging effort, but flank Cobus Grobbelaar, on the ground, and bullocking number eight Willem Alberts will test the Sharks in other areas.

Not that the Sharks forwards need to stand back to anyone. They have an all-Bok front row with two more Test players — Beast Mtawarira and Bismarck du Plessis — on the bench and their pack, generally, is as strong and effective as any in the competition with an effective blend of pace (Ryan Kankowski and Keegan Daniel) and power (Jean Deysel) at loose forward.

Scrumhalf Rory Kockott was in sublime form at Newlands and flyhalf Ruan Pienaar will improve on his showing last week as he settles, but the Sharks halfbacks need front-foot ball from their forwards if they are to release the attacking talents of the five Boks outside them.

Crowded with internationals, at home and following their Newlands heroics, the Sharks are generally favoured to win. But they are wary. The looming tour is a distraction and they know that the Lions, perhaps without the consistency and depth to challenge for the title, still have the individual skills and the attacking game to upset any team in the competition on their day.

The Sharks players, along with their coaches and supporters, will be hoping that moment comes later rather than sooner.

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