Sharks hope to rise above chaotic week

2015-03-28 00:00

THE new-look Sharks, missing six Springboks and after a chaotic week, face a searching test of their emerging talent and their organisation when they face the Force at King’s Park today.

Three of their current Springboks, the influential Pat Lambie, Cobus Reinach and Marcell Coetzee, are on SA Rugby’s weekend of R&R, captain Bismarck du Plessis has been suspended, and Pieter-Steph du Toit and Willem Alberts remain sidelined by injury.

Their absence leaves the Sharks vulnerable, both in terms of physicality and cohesion, and provides the struggling Force with a massive boost.

Certainly the Sharks would have expected a home game against the 13th-placed Force to have been a banker, but they now face a stern challenge following the disruptions of the week and against opponents who will know they can cause an upset.

The Force are down in 13th spot on the log but, as the Sharks coaching staff warned this week, they are awkward customers and they stunned the title-holding Waratahs, on their home ground in Sydney, 25-13 in the opening round of the season.

It is their only win to date, but last week they ran in three tries against the Bulls at Loftus and led in the final moments after their South African flyhalf Sias Ebersohn goaled a penalty from nine metres inside his own half. Moments later, and on the final whistle, Handré Pollard booted a penalty that won the game 25-24 for the Bulls, but the Force had come agonisingly close.

Sharks coach Gary Gold is understandably wary of “a dangerous Force team which is very well coached”.

In contrast, he added, his players had been forced to “deal with some of the biggest off-field challenges in a long time”.

The revamped Sharks have a change in captain and new combinations in the midfield, at halfback, in the front-row and at loose forward.

And Sanzar, in an unprecedented move, have certainly done their bit in adding to the confusion of the week. The red-carded Frans Steyn was (surprisingly) cleared of his tip tackle on Monday at his disciplinary hearing. But it was Sanzar’s judicial official who made the call and it was their protocol at work, yet they then waited until Wednesday to appeal and then called for the retrial to be held on the eve of today’s game. The Sharks, with their team already selected, and their main preparations for the match behind them, were understandably miffed and it took some persuasion before sanity prevailed and Sanzar switched the appeal to Tuesday.

The Force, meanwhile, have remained under the radar ahead of the game. They are renowned for their ability to counter the strengths of opposing teams but, ironically, it may not be that easy to do their homework this week because no one really knows how a different-looking Sharks team will play.

Tactically, the Sharks are unlikely to change much. The Force have been found wanting defensively this season, leaking 16 tries in six games, but a glance at the Sharks team sheet would suggest they are not overloaded with playmakers able to punish them.

Indeed, the indications are that the Sharks will again use the bludgeon rather than the rapier in chasing victory. The new midfield triumvirate consists of Frans Steyn, SA U20 centre André Esterhuizen and JP Pietersen — all powerful players, but not famous for their silky handling skills, while the two flanks, Jean Deysel and Renaldo Bothma, are destructive runners rather than creators.

The Sharks also have Steyn, a player capable of hoofing the ball vast distances, at flyhalf and it is expected that their game plan will revolve around their driving pack and playing for territory with a strong kick-chase approach.

With hooker Kyle Cooper the only forward not capped at international level, the Sharks would expect to gain a measure of control up front, but towering Force lock Adam Coleman, who stands at 2,04 metres, could cause them lineout problems.

The Sharks are fortunate that the unfortunate injury to Pieter-Steph du Toit has brought out the best in veteran Springbok lock Marco Wentzel and last week — against the Chiefs — the 35-year-old took the most lineout throws (nine) in the sixth round of Super Rugby.

There will be particular crowd interest this evening in Wallaby and Force wing Nick “The Honey Badger” Cummins — a character as famous for his wild hairstyle and enthusiastic approach as he is for his one-liners in front of the television cameras.

Paraphrasing former U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt, he has summed up the Force’s low-profile approach better than most: “Well, mate, we’re just more focused on treading softly and carrying a big stick.”

The Force have named a settled, unchanged team for this evening while the Sharks, disturbed by red cards, rotation, injury and Sanzar’s clumsiness, are in some disarray. Still, Gold will start with 11 internationals, many past but some present, and they should be talented and streetwise enough to overcome the problems of the week and come away with a win.

But don’t expect it to be pretty.

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