Sharks up against mammoth Bulls pack

2015-04-18 00:00

LIFE is all about timing and the Sharks, under siege, bump the buoyant Bulls at a most inopportune moment at King’s Park this evening.

It has been a season of change and disruption for the Sharks. New coach Gary Gold only arrived on the eve of the season opener with no time to stamp his style and authority on a squad who have since been ravaged by injury, suspension and enforced Springbok rotation.

Battle fatigue is now added to their list of woes. The Sharks are the only team yet to have a bye — they are playing their 10th game on the bounce today — and the mental and physical pressures are taking their toll and are reflected in their patchy form.

They have reached a decisive moment in their season. Currently lingering in ninth spot following back-to-back defeats, they cannot afford a third home loss this evening, particularly with their bye next week to be followed by their trek to the Antipodes. And it is shaping up as a tour from hell as they face the dangerous Highlanders, the log-topping Hurricanes (and John Plumtree) and the Waratahs, the champions, in their first three games before they would hope for some respite against the bottom-feeding Reds.

The Sharks’ senior Springboks start returning from injury and suspension next month but, if they fail today, it will almost certainly be too late to save their campaign.

While the Sharks are taking arms against a sea of troubles, the Bulls arrive today with a spring in their step, boosted by their six-try win over the Reds and the return of a host of Springboks, including flyhalf Handré Pollard and, among the tight five, Flip van der Merwe, Adriaan Strauss and Marcel van der Merwe. Coach Frans Ludeke has named a formidable — in terms of size — pack of forwards with Jacques du Plessis, a two-metre, 120 kg giant, on the flank to add options to their lineout.

What is in the Sharks’ favour is that the Bulls are poor travellers and they have won just once — against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein last month — on the road in the last two seasons. Still, the Bulls will be fielding their strongest line-up this season and, almost unwittingly, have stumbled on the balance between their traditional power game and attacking skill.

Jesse Kriel, the former Marizburg College fullback who somehow escaped the Sharks’ clutches, was overlooked by Ludeke at the start of the season, but his belated selection has added spark to the Bulls’ attack. The 21-year-old has quickly made up for lost time and he has already covered more ground with ball in hand (769 metres) than any other player in Super Rugby.

Ludeke has tacitly conceded that he erred in not selecting Kriel earlier.

“Jesse has shown that he can create something out of nothing,” said the Bulls coach after Kriel had flourished against the Reds. “That is something that we have missed over the past few seasons.”

Kriel’s enterprise from the back, and flyhalf Handré Pollard’s ability to take the ball to the line, has brought a new dimension to the Bulls’ backplay and they will test the Sharks’ paper-thin ­defence.

It is this aspect of the Sharks’ game which remains a major concern as technical director Brendan Venter has now acknowledged. Venter, surprisingly and generously, popped up this week to accept responsibility for their defensive failings.

Venter said that the principal reason for the Sharks’ disappointing run and “never previously addressed” is that their defence is simply “not up to standard”.

Venter pointed out that the Sharks had already conceded more tries (23) than last year under Jake White “when they played a horrible brand of rugby to watch but defended unbelievably well”.

He said that he had been in charge of the pre-season — while Gold was still in Japan — and had ignored working on the defence because he assumed (wrongly) that the structures, the legacy left by White, were still in place.

“I went against every single rugby principle I have ever held … the Sharks are [now] making every single error in the book in terms of defence.

“I take responsibility for not putting defensive principles in place from the start.”

And now, he said, it was all about damage control — “and we are chasing our tails”.

Incidentally, Venter praised Gold for “keeping the group together in very difficult times”.

“The players have not turned on each other … which is why I believe Gary will be proven a long-term success at the Sharks.”

The Sharks have Test props Jannie du Plessis and Beast Mtawarira back to bolster the pack, but there is a patchwork look to their backline and the Bulls, on what they saw at Ellis Park a week ago, will hope to take advantage.

The Bulls look the more solid, organised, balanced outfit; the desperate Sharks have little to offer but blood and guts. If they are ready and willing to spill both, if they can take their chances, if their set piece can stand firm, if they can keep their discipline, if they tackle and keep tackling, then the Sharks can shake up the Bulls and beat them, if … if… if.

Sharks team (15-1):

Odwa Ndungane, Sibusiso Sithole, Waylon Murray, Andre Esterhuizen, Lwazi Mvovo, Fred Zeilinga, 9. Cobus Reinach, Renaldo Bothma, Willem Alberts, Marcell Coetzee, Marco Wentzel (c), Mouritz Botha, Jannie du Plessis, Franco Marais, Tendai Mtawarira.

Replacements: Monde Hadebe, Thomas du Toit, Lourens Adriaanse, Lubabalo Mtyanda, Etienne Oosthuizen, Conrad Hoffmann, Lionel Cronje, SP Marais.

Bulls team (15-1):

Jesse Kriel, Francois Hougaard, JJ Engelbrecht, Burger Odendaal, Bjorn Basson, Handre Pollard, Rudy Paige, Pierre Spies (c), Jacques Du Plessis, Deon Stegmann, Grant Hattingh, Flip van der Merwe, Marcel Van Der Merwe, Adriaan Strauss, Dean Greyling.

Replacements: Callie Visagie, Morné Mellett, Arno Botha, Pieter Labuschagne, Piet van Zyl, Tian Schoeman, Jurgen Visser, Trevor Nyakane.

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