Feeling the pressure

2008-05-09 00:00

A Super 14 season of exciting potential and high expectations could disappear without a trace when the Sharks face their bogey team, the Free State Cheetahs, at King’s Park this afternoon.

A month ago the Sharks, unbeaten, were vying with the Crusaders for top spot; today Dick Muir’s team have to win with a bonus point to have any chance of reaching the semi-finals.

What is worrying every hometown supporter with a sense of history is that the Sharks have won only one of their last 12 games against the Free Staters.

The first half of the Super 14 season went according to Muir’s script as he hoped to stay near the top of the log early on and blossom late in the season. The Sharks, without ever touching their best form, kept winning while also dodging injury.

They appeared to be gaining momentum at the right time when they dominated the opening half against the Brumbies in Canberra, but the turning point of their season came after the break as they disintegrated in the face of officious New Zealand referee Bryce Lawrence, losing their focus and the match.

They have since lost three games on the trot and Muir has had to take a couple of unusual steps in an attempt to beef up the pack and spark a rudderless backline.

Johan Ackermann, who thought he had retired and turns 38 at the end of the month, is back in harness while Adrian Jacobs, one of Muir’s specialist impact players, suddenly has his first start this season.

The Sharks backs, crowded with young, exciting talent and a host of Springboks, have been a major disappointment with only 20 tries scored in 11 outings. In an attempt to unearth a try-scoring formula, and in mixing and matching his attacking talents, Muir has now totally re-jigged the Sharks back division.

Significantly, only wing JP Pietersen, who is yet to score a try this year — he ran in 13 last season — remains from the backline (Steyn, Pietersen, Murray, Barritt, Mentz, Michalak and Pienaar) selected for the opening game back in February.

The pack has been more stable and seven remain with the only change at lock with Albert van den Berg in for injured captain Johann Muller.

Still, Muir was in upbeat mood yesterday after a solid week of preparation.

"We have to win the next two games (their last game is against the Chiefs next weekend) and hope that other results fall in our favour over the next fortnight.

"We know it will not be easy. We always seem to struggle against the Cheetahs and they have a powerful side in spite of their log position. It should make for an excellent contest."

He also believes the Free Staters’ current 13th place on the log is totally misleading.

"They have been unlucky and they have lost a string of games by the odd point."

The result has been that the Cheetahs have picked up a remarkable nine bonus points — the most of all the Super 14 teams — to the Sharks’ two.

As Muir pointed out, the Cheetahs have not battled to score this season — running up 221 points to the Sharks’ 191 — but the Free Staters’ defence has been surprisingly porous and has cost them as they have leaked 335 points in 11 games.

Muir is hoping that their defensive problems remain today and that his new midfield pairing of Francois Steyn and Jacobs, operating outside new flyhalf Ruan Pienaar, can create the openings, and the tries, which have been missing all season.

But, as usual, the key is up front where the Cheetahs have a brawny backrow in Duanne Vermeulen, Juan Smith and Heinrich Brussow, the underrated Barend Pieterse at lock and two powerful props in Bok CJ van der Line and Wian du Preez.

Muir, unsurprisingly, has opted for his most physical available pack and is looking to Bismarck du Plessis, Venter and Ackermann to help provide the platform, and the momentum, for his backs.

The Cheetahs have unsettled the Sharks in recent years by playing the percentages with their structured game, an excellent pack and the boot of Willem de Waal providing them with the advantage. De Waal is no longer with them and Muir believes they will be more attacking in their approach today.

But the key is how the Sharks react to the pressure on the day. The Cheetahs have little to lose and will be dangerous, but the pressured Sharks have suddenly run out of time. Unless the Sharks realise their potential today — and they have 11 Springboks in their starting line-up — a season of rich promise will dribble away in depressing, premature failure.

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