Revamped scrum revived Sharks

2010-04-21 00:00

THE success of their revamped scrum, which followed the switch of Springbok captain John Smit to loosehead prop, has been a major factor in the Sharks’ Super 14 revival, coach John Plumtree said yesterday.

The Sharks lost their first five games on the trot, but an injury to Beast Mtawarira on their tour Down Under, and Smit’s move from tighthead to loosehead, coincided with an improved scrummaging display.

The Beast withdrew on the eve of the Highalnders game and Smit, drafted in at loosehead, packed down in the front-row with the Du Plessis brothers, hooker Bismarck and tighthead Jannie. The Sharks, with a solid scrum, have since beaten the Highlanders, Hurricanes, Queensland Reds and the Lions.

“There has been consistency in selection and performance, which has been good,” Plumtree said yesterday.

“Beast has missed out, but has an impact role off the bench and he’s happy with that at this stage.”

Plumtree said he would have wanted to provide Mtawarira with more opportunities, but Smit’s form at loosehead has been impressive.

“John is playing really well at loosehead. It frees up his running game a bit, he’s enjoying it and he has settled into that role really well.

“His off-loading, ball-carrying and skill at phase play has added another dimension to our game, and obviously we also have his leadership.”

The Sharks are enthusiastic about the rugby that the Du Plessis brothers are playing.

“On the tighthead side, Jannie is probably playing the best rugby of his life at the moment, and Bismarck is right up there. They’ve both found some serious form, which is great. Beast, coming off the bench in the second half, can also do some good damage with his game.”

Jannie du Plessis agrees that playing in a settled front-row has boosted his game.

Earlier in the week he said he had struggled last year because of a lack of game time.

“The entire Sharks front-row is playing good rugby. Bismarck is playing his best rugby in a while and John has also been excellent,” the burly tighthead said.

The Sharks’ front-row face their toughest challenge yet when they take on the Blues’ experienced and beefy All Black front-row of Tony Woodcock, Keven Mealamu and John Afoa on Saturday.

Looking ahead to Saturday, Plumtree said his squad is in good shape.

“Willem Alberts is a little bit dinged up and so is Jean Deysel, and these two players had a high number of contacts against the Lions.”

He said they should be ready by practice tomorrow, when a decision on centre Riaan Swanepoel’s ankle injury will be made.

The Sharks now play the Blues, Bulls, Stormers and Force to complete their round robin season.

“We have a real big challenge over the next four weeks, but at least we have three games at home — the game against the Bulls is at Loftus — and I hope we get good support. We’re going to need it because the challenges are pretty awesome.”

The Sharks have a remarkably good record against the Blues and have won their last five games.

“The couple of times we’ve beaten them in New Zealand have been pretty special. They have such great All Black players and you have to work really hard to win. We have caught them here a couple of times when they were out of touch or carrying injuries, but this Blues team has found some form, their key players have been really impressive and we have a lot of respect for them.”

The game will be make-or-break for both teams, he said.

“They play the Cheetahs and Lions next and they would have targeted our game as the big one on their tour, so they’ll be up for it.”

Plumtree said he is becoming accustomed to the tight finishes to Super 14 games. Seven of the Sharks’ nine games this season — either in victory or defeat — have been decided by five points or less.

“I now prepare myself for those last tense five minutes in every game,” he said with a smile.

“I think I’m getting used to it, but it is still tough in the coaching box. Having to defend a five-metre lineout against the Lions on Saturday night with just over a minute on the clock was not fun.

“But credit to the players. We knew the Lions would bring all their backs into that final lineout drive and it has been successful for them over the last few games. We did work on how we were going to counter it and Alistair Hargreaves [replacement lock] defended particularly well to keep them out.”

Saturday’s match kicks off at 5.05 pm and will be preceded by the Sharks XV-Griquas Vodacom Cup quarter-final at 2 pm.

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