It’s into the bull pen

2015-02-28 00:00

THE Sharks will have to face down one of the most daunting physical challenges in world ­rugby this evening when they bump the grumpy Bulls in their own backyard at Loftus.

The desperate Bulls are bristling after being pilloried by friend and foe following successive home defeats. They will respond in the only way they know how — by placing even greater emphasis on intensity and brawn in attempting to ­outmuscle the Sharks.

The Sharks have spent most of the week talking about the bruising nature of the contest awaiting them in Pretoria, but acknowledging the magnitude of the challenge is the easy part; the real test is finding an ­effective antidote.

The Sharks enjoyed themselves against the Lions last weekend when they showed commitment, controlled the forward exchanges and took their try-scoring chances smartly in the wet.

They now have to do it all again away from home and they know the test will be even tougher against a team determined to silence their detractors by ­taking chunks out of the ­opposition.

History is on the Bulls’ side. It is 13 years since they last lost three home games on the bounce and the Sharks have won only four of their last 11 Super Rugby games at Loftus.

The Sharks know they cannot afford to take a backward step tonight if they are to stay in the contest. The Bulls — the players and the supporters — are fired up, particularly after one of their favourite sons, veteran lock ­Victor Matfield, was this week labelled “an old man” past his sell-by date.

The attack, predictably, was launched by dial-a-quote former Springbok prop Ollie le Roux, who appears to take particular delight in putting the boot into former team-mates.

Le Roux, rugby’s equivalent of opinionated former England cricketer Geoffrey Boycott, said that Matfield is “playing like an old man”.

“He’s lost the presence he once had and even his line-out work is suffering. He just doesn’t have it in him to provide a physical presence around the park anymore, and the longer he goes on, the more his legacy will be tainted.”

Well, that will be like a red rag to Matfield and his team-mates, and it has not made the Sharks’ job tonight any easier.

Certainly, the clash between Matfield, who is nearing the end of his career and is two months short of 38, and 22-year-old heir apparent Pieter-Steph du Toit will be watched with more than passing interest.

Du Toit is the Sharks’ go-to man in the line-outs. Indeed, he took more line-out throws (11) last weekend than any other jumper in Super Rugby. But this evening he will have Matfield, the sharpest line-out technician in world rugby, tracking and ­harassing him and it makes for an intriguing duel.

The Sharks’ limited line-out options was surely a factor in ­returning Ryan Kankowski to the back row.

The rangy Kankowski will provide hooker Bismarck du Plessis with another line-out target, providing some variety and taking pressure off Du Toit.

Kankowski, just back from Japan, will be up against Pierre Spies in the back row and this will be another of the evening’s running sideshows as both seek to make an impact in World Cup year. The two former Springbok number eights, both 29, are at the crossroads in their careers. After receiving early rave reviews — Spies made his Springbok­ ­debut in 2006 and Kankowski a year later — and impressing with their athletic ability, their careers have stalled.

Spies has been dogged by ­injury and in recent seasons was sidelined by a ruptured bicep. A most imposing figure on the rugby field — we are reliably informed he can “power clean 135 kg, dead lift 240 kg, bench press 165 kg and do pull-ups with a 50 kg weight between his legs” — Spies looks like Superman.

His critics say he plays like Clark Kent and fails to exploit his physical qualities.

Kankowski, who played his most effective rugby in 2008, is another whose career has not reached the expected heights. While injury has also derailed his progress at times, he seems to have lost some of his explosiveness in broken play since taking the softer option in 2012 and playing club rugby in Japan, and he has even fallen out of favour with coaches at the Sharks.

While there are a number of these individual battles across the field, the spotlight will ­obviously focus on the two fly halves, the Bulls’ Handré Pollard and Pat Lambie, who will be wanting to score early points as they battle for the Springbok pivot role. Their game management and tactical awareness in a tight battle will be critical to the outcome this evening.

The Sharks will look to their scrum to place the makeshift Bulls front row — loosehead Trevor Nyakane is again on the tighthead — under early pressure and will be hoping that Jannie du Plessis can string together two strong performances.

The Bulls have Springbok tighthead Marcel van der Merwe back from injury and on the bench, and his tussle with Sharks young replacement loosehead Thomas du Toit could be a feature of the second half.

The teams appear well matched and both will start with 10 Springboks.

Spies, as the Bulls captain, says that “soft moments” cost his team in the first two games.

“It is going to be a tough battle, a typical local derby, but we are ready for this challenge.”

His coach Frans Ludeke, under massive pressure in Pretoria, is not dodging the importance of a victory.

“We cannot really afford to drop any home matches, so nothing but a win will suffice.”

The Sharks have been lifted by their Lions win but they now need to find the consistency which will carry them through a long winter.

Scrumhalf Cobus Reinach is in a positive mood.

“If we bring what we have to the party, we can beat anyone,” he says.

Conversely, if the Sharks lose focus and go walkabout, as they did against the Cheetahs, they can also lose to anyone.

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