Plumtree covers the bases

2011-02-12 00:00

IT will be the toughest of marathons, a gruelling slog spread over six months, and the Sharks will have to find consistency — a quality which has been elusive in recent seasons — if they are to challenge for the Super Rugby title.

The competition, expanded and transformed, will make unrealistic demands of the leading players with 16 tough matches crowded into 18 weeks before the play-offs. And half the games will be derby clashes with strong, fired-up South African teams against a backdrop of fanatical support and high expectations.

Springbok coach Peter de Villiers and SA Rugby CEO Jurie Roux, looking ahead to the World Cup, have both expressed concern about the nature of the competition, the number of derby games and the fierce rivalry between the South African teams.

“It’s going to be brutal,” said Roux, adding that key players could miss out on the Rugby World Cup because of injury.

Sharks captain John Smit spoke about the competition being spiced up.

“There is more of a Currie Cup flavour to the tournament. The physical intensity of the local derbies is going to be huge with more games and far bigger hits.”

The Sharks have now had successive Super Rugby seasons that have bewildered and frustrated coach, player and supporter alike. Their objective will be to marry their 2009 start to the second-half of their 2010 season and reach the play-offs.

They made all the early running in 2009 and were hurtling along as log-leaders with seven wins (four away from home) from eight outings. A home semi-final was in sight when they lost four of their last five games to end sixth. Last year their fortunes were reversed as they lost their first five games, and then won seven out of the last eight, only to finish ninth.

Sharks coach John Plumtree believes that depth in the squad and the rotation of players will be critical in a tournament that is spread over six months (February to July) with only two weekend byes.

“The local derbies will give the competition far more intensity,” he says.“These games are normally more physical anyway, but to play home and away against the South African sides gives the competition a much sharper edge.”

The Sharks believe that in terms of player reserve they are as strong as any South African franchise.

“We have at least two players in contention in every position, but, of course, if you get a run of injuries in one area, you will always be in trouble.”

The Sharks highlighted this problem in the Tri-Series in Cape Town where they were suddenly short of locks when Steve Sykes, Alistair Hargreaves and Ross Skeate went down with injuries and Gerhard Mostert and Anton Bressler were rushed into the frontline.

Plumtree says the Sharks do not have too many quality three-quarters, “but we have a lot of backs who can play in different positions”.

He realises that versatility is “not considered a good thing in this country where you’re supposed to play only one position”, but it suits him and the Sharks.

Back-up for fullback Louis Ludik will come from wing Odwa Ndungane — who slipped effortlessly into the position against the Stormers last Saturday, Stefan Terblanche and flyhalf Pat Lambie.

JP Pietersen, looking fitter and stronger, the talented Lwazi Mvovo and Ndungane will be rotated on the wings, while Terblanche will partner the skilful newcomer Meyer Bosman in midfield with Adi Jacobs and Riaan Swanepoel providing back-up.

There might be occasions when Plumtree may use one of his two flyhalves, Lambie or Jaques-Louis Potgieter, at inside centre. Potgieter, with a prodigious boot, provides Plumtree with a kicking option at flyhalf, but Lambie is key to the fluid, fast-moving style of rugby that the Sharks want to play this year.

“I think Pat is growing all the time,” says Plumtree. “He’ll get better. He’s not where he was at the end of last season, but he’ll get better, just like all of them.”

Scrumhalf Charl Mcleod is the spark at the base of the scrum and his speed and alertness will be a major factor in the Sharks’ attacking game. New signing Conrad Hoffman, looking for more game time than he was afforded in Cape Town, will play off the bench initially, but he will be given his opportunity during the lengthy tournament.

Plumtree is spoilt for choice in the front-row with four Springboks (the Du Plessis brothers, John Smit and Beast Mtawarira) backed by Craig Burden, Eugene van Staden and Wiehahn Herbst.

Club, pub and lounge discussion has centred on where captain Smit will find himself this year, both for the Sharks and the Boks. He is one of the very few players in world rugby to have played at Test level in all three positions in the front-row. Plumtree has said that his captain will be rotated and managed, but will also be shifted around the front-row and on and off the bench during the protracted tournament.

The form, the physicality and the powerful influence of Bismarck du Plessis would suggest that he will remain the Sharks’ first-choice hooker. It seems highly likely that Smit will start at loosehead against the Cheetahs in the opening game next Saturday with Beast Mtawarira playing off the bench. Smit will then be switched to tighthead or hooker or simply replaced in the second half when Plumtree opts for fresh legs.

Plumtree is hoping that this first-choice lock pairing of Alistair Hargeaves and Steven Sykes will be flourishing by next Saturday, but he has back-up in Gerhard Mostert and Anton Bressler while Ross Skeate will be back from injury in a fortnight.

Ryan Kankowski, Keegan Daniel and Willem Alberts are the Sharks’ first-choice back-row with Jacques Botes and Jean Deysel — when he returns to action in a month — providing loose forward support.

The bases are covered and the Sharks have the coach, the innovative game plan, the talent and the depth to reach the play-offs.

Luck will play a part as they attempt to steer clear of injuries and find favour with referees, but it is the consistency of their performance over 16 long weeks which holds the key to their challenge.

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