Clash of the rugby titans

2008-09-05 00:00

A fortnight ago, a limping Victor Matfield and his Springbok team-mates were booed as they left the field in Durban after the Springboks had lost to the Wallabies; today, now as the Blue Bulls captain, he would delight in giving the King’s Park crowd the finger by beating the Sharks in this high-profile Currie Cup match.

The inclusion of Matfield after a long international season, and wing Bryan Habana, who is being troubled by a hamstring strain, underlines both the importance of today’s game between the top two teams on the log, and how determined the Springboks are to be involved.

While the Bulls, who see victory today as a major step towards a home Currie Cup final, have rushed back all their Boks, Sharks coach John Plumtree has chosen to keep some of his powder dry.

“We are probably still five players short of fielding our strongest side,” he told the Weekend Witness yesterday.

“Had it been a final, both Adrian Jacobs and Beast (Tendai Mtawarira) could have played, but we have rested them. You have to be fresh mentally and physically to play in games like this.”

Injured number eight Ryan Kankowski and JP Pietersen and Bismarck du Plessis, both on the bench today, are expected to start against Free State in Durban next weekend.

The battle, as usual, starts in the set pieces today, but Plumtree said that every area of the game will be critical.

“We will have to be accurate in our kicking game, at the breakdown and in defence. But it does come down to first-phase ball, and if we don’t stand up in the set pieces, then we will be in trouble.”

The Sharks line-out — with Springboks Matfield, Danie Rossouw and Pierre Spies in opposition ranks — will be under particular pressure.

“We have short loose forwards at the back so our locks (Johann Muller and Alistair Hargreaves) will have to compete strongly,” said Plumtree. “We will have to be smart at lineout time.”

The Bulls finished off impressively against Western Province last week, running in 31 unanswered points in the second half for a 37-6 win. They played with precision in the second half, matching the power of their brawny forwards with the straight running of their backs.

Sharks assistant coach Grant Bashford said the Bulls have changed their approach, introducing more passing and a direct style.

“Flyhalf Morné Steyn is now a running threat and does not just stand back and play in the pocket.

He is in the face of the opposition which is huge change for the Bulls. They are very different from the Bulls of old,” said Bashford.

The Sharks have strengths of their own as they have turned their season around by running up three excellent and stylish wins on the road, emphatically beating Griquas, Western Province and Boland. Their continuity has been impressive in recent weeks and their game plan now plays to their strengths.

There will be intriguing individual contests across the park. The successful Sharks loose trio of Jean Deysel, Jacques Botes and Keegan Daniel are bumping the athletic Pierre Spies, Wikus van Heerden and Deon Stegmann; Bok team-mates Ruan Pienaar and Fourie du Preez will squabble at the base of the scrum while flyhalves Frederic Michalak and the Bulls’ Morné Steyn have key roles to play in varying their games and directing the flow of play.

But these are the sideshows. The really decisive action centres on the crunch at forward where the team gaining momentum and front-foot possession will dictate.

The Bulls, with their muscular forwards, a superior lineout and influential, world-class players in Victor Matfield, Bryan Habana and Fourie du Preez returning from the Bok squad, have a slight edge. The bookies have them winning by two points and it could be as close as that.

Still, the well-coached, confident and enthusiastic Sharks are capable of knocking the Bulls off-balance and harrying them into error. But that will be possible only if they stand up strongly to the bruising Bulls’ approach, make their tackles and then ruthlessly take their scoring chances.

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