Sharks are stronger and better organised than last year, says Smit

2011-02-16 00:00

SPRINGBOK captain John Smit is convinced that the Sharks, stronger and more organised than they were a year ago, are ready for their Super Rugby campaign.

The Sharks open their campaign against the Cheetahs at King’s Park on Saturday and Smit is expected to start at loosehead prop with Springbok Bismarck du Plessis at hooker.

“We’re in a better place than last year,” Smit said yesterday. “Last year we had all the disruptions around the flyhalf [with Juan Hernandez and Steve Meyer late withdrawals] and there was drama around eventually getting one. But, organisationally, we are far better than a year ago.”

Smit said that the Sharks are a settled squad and preparations have also been far more intense and effective.

“There has been far more consistency around our Springboks having a good amount of time off and then arriving in decent enough shape to catch up in fitness. Barring the odd injury, everyone is on the same page. We’d like the start of the tournament to be different to a year ago [when the Sharks lost their first five games].”

Smit, who was criticised in some quarters last year for being overweight and lacking match fitness, has lost almost 10 kg following neck surgery and intense preparations for this year’s Super 15 and Rugby World Cup.

“I feel fit, but we’ll see on Saturday. It has been a valuable four months and the neck operation was at the right time.

“I had a lot of time to get away from the game and then started the pre-season training with all the youngsters in November, so I’ve been able to get a good run in to the season. The hardest part of the year is over now and I’m thankful that game time is now here.”

Smit did not completely rule out playing after the RWC in New Zealand later this year.

“You never know. Every year could be your last, but it’s crazy to think that I’ve been playing in this tournament since 1999. It could very well be the last one and with the squad we have, I’d like it to be a special one. But to think too far past the Cheetahs this weekend would be foolish.”

The Sharks captain said that the new format, with home and away games against the four other South African franchises, will work in favour of the Cheetahs who do not travel well.

“The format will suit them. They will have a few more cracks at the local sides and travelling won’t be as much of an issue.

“We’ve heard quite a bit from them in the last week or so and how they fancy their chances. They seem adamant their luck is about to change in Super Rugby.”

Smit said the Cheetahs will be tougher in the local derbies, even away from home, and they will be determined to make a good start as they did last year in beating the Sharks in Durban.

“We’ll just have to make sure we put in the work on Saturday. We’ll be in for a big fight, but both teams will be a bit rusty.”

Sharks head coach John Plumtree said that Springbok wing JP Pietersen, nursing a hamstring strain, is unlikely to play on Saturday. The good news is that wing Odwa Ndungane, an obvious replacement, is over his throat infection.

“Odwa trained this morning and has responded quickly to treatment, so he’s alright,” said Plumtree. “JP hasn’t trained yet this week so he’s got to be doubtful for the weekend.”

Plumtree confirmed that lock Steven Sykes, who missed the pre-season friendlies because of a calf strain, has trained well this week and will be available.

The Sharks coach admitted that he would have preferred to have had an additional warm-up game, but a competition that stretches over six months (February to July) will take a heavy toll on the players.

“We might not be as good as we could be on Saturday. In an ideal world, it would have been great to have had another run together, but we have 16 pool games coming up. We will get better as the season progresses.”

Meanwhile, South African Test referee Craig Joubert, who was in charge of last year’s Currie Cup final at King’s Park, will now handle the game instead of Steve Walsh. The New Zealander is recovering from a knee injury. Saturday’s opener kicks off at 5.05 pm.

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