Battle of the cauliflower ears

2011-03-05 00:00

THE spotlight will be on a couple of fresh-faced 20-year-olds, but it will be the battle of the cauliflower ears up front which will decide the Sharks’ Super Rugby clash against the Force in Perth today.

Opposing each other at flyhalf will two of the more talented young players in world rugby, the Sharks’ Pat Lambie and James O’Connor, the Force’s young playmaker. Both started their Super Rugby careers at fullback, but their contrasting talents have taken them to the hub of the action.

O’Connor is playing only his second game at flyhalf for the Force, and Lambie, with a full Currie Cup season behind him, has more experience in the pivot role.

But O’Connor, of course, is the more seasoned player. He made his Super Rugby debut as a 17-year-old, receiving his first Test cap the same year. He has played in 27 internationals at fullback and wing, and his sublime skills, opportunism and pace make him a match-winner. The Sharks will aim to cramp him for space, but he will certainly test the defences close to the forwards.

While he may not possess the dynamic line-breaking ability of O’Connor, the composed Lambie has all the makings of an international flyhalf. He kicks and tackles well and he is a smooth distributor with vision while he is also prepared to attack the gainline.

Coach Richard Graham has already spoken of the need to pressure Lambie in much the same way as the Force bottled up Wallaby flyhalf Quade Cooper in their narrow one-point loss to the Reds in Brisbane in the first round.

The contest between the two youngsters will be an intriguing one, but the general mood and flow of the game will be decided by the forwards. Certainly Plumtree is hoping that his forwards can match the intensity they showed against the Blues — and their seven All Blacks — last week and again create the frontfoot ball which made Lambie’s job easier while pressuring the opposition. And that, really, is the key. The Force, with an all-Wallaby backrow of the excellent David Pocock, Matt Hodgson and Richard Brown, and with O’Connor sniping away from flyhalf, will be a real handful if they gain any forward momentum.

The Sharks are hoping that the heat of the week in Perth will give way to cool conditions tonight and they will be able to return to the quick attacking game which proved so successful in the Currie Cup.

Graham has already made a piece of Force history. This is the first time in 66 games since the Western Force made their debut in 2006 — that they have started with an unchanged team. After their bye last week they have been waiting two weeks for this Sharks’ game, but we will only know tonight whether the early break in competition has benefited or disrupted the team’s preparations. The Sharks, in contrast, will have taken much that was positive from their win over a tough Blues outfit last Saturday. They know their forwards can stand up to the best and, while they did butcher a couple of tries, they showed they can create scoring opportunities.

Australian rugby writers are convinced that the Force, on the evidence of their spirited first round showing against the Reds and happy to be playing at home, will beat the Sharks. But if Plumtree’s team can overcome a disrupted week of preparation and reproduce the intensity they showed against the Blues, the Sharks should start their four-match overseas tour on a winning note.


Sharks: 15 Louis Ludik, 14 Odwa Ndungane, 13 Stefan Terblanche (capt), 12 Meyer Bosman, 11 JP Pietersen 10. Patrick Lambie 9. Charl McLeod 8. Ryan Kankowski 7. Willem Alberts 6. Keegan Daniel 5. Alistair Hargreaves, 4 Steven Sykes, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Tendai Mtawarira

Replacements: 16 Craig Burden,17 John Smit, 18 Anton Bresler, 19 Jacques Botes, 20 Conrad Hoffmann, 21 Jacques-Louis Potgieter, 22 Lwazi Mvovo.

Force: 15 Cameron Shepherd, 14 Nick Cummins, 13 Mitch Inman, 12 Gene Fairbanks, 11 David Smith, 10 James O’Connor, 9 Brett Sheehan, 8 Richard Brown, 7 David Pocock, 6 Matt Hodgson, 5 Nathan Sharpe (capt), 4 Ben McCalman, 3 Tim Fairbrother, 2 Ben Whittaker, 1 Pek Cowan.

Replacements: 16 Nathan Charles, 17 Matt Dunning, 18 Sam Wykes, 19 Tevita Metuisela, 20 James Stannard, 21 Alfie Mafi, 22 Rory Sidey.

Referee: Keith Brown (NZ). Kick-off: 1305 (SS1).

Today’s games (SA time, home team first)

Chiefs vs Rebels 08.35, Brumbies vs Reds 10.40, Force vs Sharks 13.05, Stormers vs Cheetahs 17.05, Bulls vs Highlanders 1910, bye: Hurricanes.

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