A must-win for the Sharks

2015-03-14 00:00

THE time has come to stop talking and start doing. That, surely, would have been coach Gary Gold’s message to his under-performing Sharks ahead of this evening’s Super Rugby outing against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein.

The Sharks, with clear focus and organisation, dumped the Lions in the wet at King’s Park. But they were distracted and certainly let themselves down against the Cheetahs, Bulls and Stormers when post-match debate centred on moments of controversy, and the Sharks’ many soft moments, rather than on the quality of their rugby.

And this is coming from a squad crowded with experienced internationals who now have a sorry record of three defeats in four outings.

Even the Sharks technical director Brendan Venter made veiled criticism of his own players this week in praising the Stormers’ high work ethic in their win over the Springbok-laden Sharks. Venter quoted American basketball coaches who said that “hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard”. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink.

The pressure is certainly on Gold and his charges. A loss this evening, and then again against the leading New ­Zealand team, the Sonny Bill Williams-inspired Chiefs in Durban next weekend, will have them down and out with five losses in their first six games.

The Sharks had a St Valentine’s Day to forget in losing 35-29 to the enthusiastic but vulnerable Cheetahs in Durban in their opening game. Everything that could go wrong did that day as they lost first their captain Bismarck du Plessis shortly before the match and then his Test front-row partner, loosehead Beast Mtawarira, with a calf injury after the first quarter.

Their scrum was a shambles as tighthead Jannie du Plessis had one of his off days. The Cheetahs could not believe their luck — and they responded by running in four tries for a bonus point — as they bumped a Sharks team lacking energy, passion and match practice.

The Sharks will be better tonight. Springbok scrumhalf Cobus Reinach, who has shown patchy form this season, was outplayed by Sarel Pretorius on that gloomy day and he will have a point to prove while the Sharks scrum, after the disasters at Newlands last week and with their Springbok props (Du Plessis an Mtawarira) back in action, should be far more effective.

With players returning from injury and Japan, Gold now has close to his most potent team. Only the injured Springbok flank Willem Alberts is missing. Indeed, if this was a competition played on paper and not grass, the Sharks would be shoo-in for the title.

Gold has an all-Test front-row (the Du Plessis brothers and the Beast), two internationals in the second-row in Mouritz Botha and Pieter-Steph du Toit, and two Springboks at loose forward (Coetzee and Kankowksi) and three when Alberts is fit.

Gold has the Test halfback pairing in Reinach and Pat Lambie and 2007 World Cup winners in Frans Steyn and JP Pietersen in midfield. The wings, ­Odwa Ndungane and Lwazi Mvovo, are also Springboks and the odd men out, the only players not capped at international level, are fullback SP Marais and flank Renaldo Bothma.

That’s a grand total of 13 internationals; the Cheetahs, in Willie le Roux, Cornal Hendricks, Coenie Oosthuzien and Oupa Mohoje, will start with four.

Naka Drotské, the Cheetahs coach, lost a host of senior players and his captain, mostly to the Bulls, during the close season. The Free Staters keep churning out fresh talent but, by way of a change, they have now started ­shopping in Durban for depth and have five former Sharks in their match 23 — starting prop Danie Mienie and replacements Steven Sykes, Willie du Plessis, Tian Meyer and Maks van Dyk.

Drotské also rates scrumhalf Pretorius so highly that he has rushed him back just over a week after he picked up a hamstring strain.

“Sarel is one of those players who can create something out of nothing,” Drotské said this week. “We saw that in the first game against the Sharks in Durban, so it is great to have him back. He is probably the best attacking scrumhalf in the world.”

The Cheetahs coach initially overlooked flank Teboho “Oupa” Mohoje, honouring an agreement with SA Rugby that Springboks will not play in more than five successive games and opting to rest him now rather than on the tour Down Under. But a late injury to Tienie Burger, named as his replacement, has resulted in a recall for Mohoje today.

If Drotské is right, and this rotational agreement is to be enforced, the Sharks will be in a horrible spot for their sixth round game against the formidable Chiefs with Pat Lambie, Cobus Reinach, Lwazi Mvovo, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Marcell Coetzee all due a break. Now that would be a crisis.

But, for the moment, attention is on the must-win Cheetahs outing and Gold is looking to his players to turn opportunities into points. He knows better than most that a host of Springboks does not make a winning team and, indeed, can be a disadvantage.

“Having all of them is not going to win us games. The opposition see that we have 13 Boks and raise their game.”

The Sharks have the pedigree, the players, the talent and certainly the desperation to win going away tonight. But, if they flop again tonight and fail to produce the work ethic Venter is demanding, the call for a stewards’ inquiry will be deafening.

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