Sharks hoping for moody Blues

2010-04-24 00:00

THE Sharks will be hoping to catch the moody Blues on one of their bad days when they clash in their Super 14 game at King’s Park this evening.

John Smit’s Sharks, even if short of their best, have still managed to turn their season around over the past month with four victories on successive weekends following five rounds of defeat.

The consistently inconsistent Auckland Blues have mixed the sublime with the messy, and even their coach Pat Lam cannot be certain what awaits us this evening.

“We have to work as a team not individuals,” Lam says. “If we do that, we can be a very damaging team, but if we don’t then we can be pretty average.”

The Blues’ campaign has fluctuated wildly between victory over the Highlanders, Reds, Brumbies and Bulls to defeat by the Hurricanes, Crusaders, Waratahs and Stormers.

Captain Smit believes the contrasting form of the Blues in first beating the champion Bulls one week and then losing to the Stormers the next has shaped an obvious game plan for the Sharks.

“In those Bulls and Stormers matches, we saw the carbon copy of how to play them and how not to play them,” Smit said earlier this week.

Smit said the Bulls had allowed the Blues to run with the ball and play on the front foot and in that way physically dominate the collisions. The Stormers, in contrast, denied the Blues space and chances to counter-attack by controlling possession and kicking effectively out of hand.

The Sharks captain says his robust pack must suffocate the Blues forwards and the contest will be decided by which team is allowed to play their game with the ball.

“You can’t give a side like the Blues a disjointed defensive line,” Smit said of their backs.

Coach John Plumtree agreed.

“They are skilled attackers and have the best backline in the competition,” said Plumtree. “They have pace and they have steppers. If we miss our first-time tackles and defend poorly, we will be in deep trouble,” he added.

The Sharks’ kick-and-chase will have to be on the button against a team crowded with lively attackers. Any team with the luxury of omitting a quality centre such as the rugged Rene Ranger — he has been replaced by All Black Luke McAlister — is spoilt for backline choice, and Plumtree, forced to field fullback Stefan Terblanche out of position in the Sharks’ midfield, will be deeply envious

The Blues have four All Blacks among their outside backs in fullback Isaia Toeava, Joe Rokocoko (one of the most effective finishers in world rugby) and Rudi Wulf on the wings and centre McAlister, while former Crusaders flyhalf Stephen Brett has a strong kicking game to add to his attacking skills.

The Blues also have a potent and experienced all-Test front-row of John Afoa, captain Keven Mealamu and Tony Woodcock, and the Sharks’ Du Plessis brothers and Smit face another torrid evening.

The Sharks will hope to challenge the Blues’ lineout, harass them at the breakdown and keep them under pressure at the maul in an attempt to limit their space and attacking options.

It is a make-or-break outing for both teams. Defeat for the Sharks will finally bury all the wishful semi-final thinking of the past few weeks, while the Blues have to win to stay on track for a play-off spot.

What will lift the Sharks is their great record against the Blues. They have won, home and away, their last five Super 14 matches against the Auckland team and their success has been built on a strong forward display keeping the Blues on the back foot and forcing their backs to run from behind the advantage line.

They know what is needed to beat the Blues and they will want to replicate the form they showed in the first 30 minutes against the Lions at Ellis Park last Saturday when they dominated territory and possession. Their beefy forwards — Willem Alberts, Jean Deysel, Bismarck du Plessis and Smit — drove hard and often to suck in the defenders.

It promises to be another bloody, physical contest. By means fair and foul, with tackles low and high, the Blues stopped the Bulls in their tracks. They know if they can repeat that display against Alberts, Deysel and company, and win the collisions, the Sharks’ game plan will be in tatters. While the Sharks have played consistently well, and no more, in their succession of narrow wins in recent weeks, the Blues’ form has fluctuated sharply.

The outcome will depend on just which Blues side pitches up on the night. If they bring their A game, that style and fierce commitment which killed off the Bulls, the Sharks will be in for a long, painful night, particularly if they go missing in defence. But if the Blues are even slightly off-colour, then the Sharks have the forward pack and the tactical nous to prevail.

Sharks: 15. Patrick Lambie, 14. Odwa Ndungane, 13. Stefan Terblanche, 12. Andries Strauss, 11. JP Pietersen, 10. Andy Goode, 9. Ruan Pienaar, 8. Willem Alberts, 7. Jean Deysel, 6. Jacques Botes, 5. Johann Muller, 4. Steven Sykes, 3. Jannie du Plessis, 2. Bismarck du Plessis, 1. John Smit (captain)

Replacements: 16. Craig Burden, 17. Tendai Mtawarira, 18. Alistair Hargreaves, 19. Michael Rhodes, 20. Rory Kockott, 21. Riaan Swanepoel, 22. Lwazi Mvovo

Blues: 15. Isaia Toeava, 14. Joe Rokocoko, 13. Benson Stanley, 12. Luke McAlister, 11. Rudi Wulf, 10. Stephen Brett, 9. Alby Mathewson, 8. Peter Saili, 7. Serge Lilo, 6. Jerome Kaino, 5. Filo Paulo, 4. Kurtis Haiu, 3. John Afoa, 2. Keven Mealamu captain, 1. Tony Woodcock.

Replacements: 16. Tom McCartney,17. Tevita Mailau / Charlie Faumuina, 18. Andrew Van der Heijden, 19. Viliami Ma’afu, 20. Chris Smylie, 21. Rene Ranger, 22. Paul Williams.

Referee: Mark Lawrence (SA)

Kick-off: 5.05 pm (M-Net, M-Net HD and SuperSport 1)

Curtain-raiser: Sharks XV vs Griquas, Vodacom Cup quarter-final, 2 pm

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