Unpopular Kiwi referee to handle Sharks game

2008-05-19 00:00

And now for the bad news. New Zealand referee Bryce Lawrence, who huffed and puffed and blew the Sharks away in the second half of their recent game against the Brumbies in Canberra, will be back to handle their Super 14 semi-final against the Waratahs in Sydney on Saturday.

Lawrence’s officious second-half approach in Canberra prompted an unacceptably petulant response from the Sharks players as a string of penalties, free kicks and two yellow cards changed the mood and course of the game.

The Sharks, dominant in the first half and comfortably ahead 18-7 at the break, went down 21-27 and the unexpected defeat — their first in the 2008 competition — sent their season into a downward spiral. They lost three games on the trot and finally missed out on a home semi-final (second place) by one log point.

Lawrence’s display was widely condemned, even by Australian commentators, yet he has been rewarded with the semi-final. His appointment is of obvious concern to the Sharks, though coach Dick Muir, asked about Lawrence on Saturday night, showed admirable self-control in restricting his response to an extravagant shrug of the shoulders.

Stuart Dickinson of Australia will handle the other semi-final between the Crusaders and Hurricanes in Christchurch.

While Sharks officials, for some reason, would not release their 24-man tour squad to the media — or, indeed, their own website — on Sunday, even after Muir’s merry men had departed, there were no surprises.

Muir had confirmed that Tongan Epi Taione, whose Sharks contract was terminated after he was banned for six weeks for a head-butt, had suddenly returned from London and was back in the squad.

Squeezing him into the match squad of 22 might not be as easy, but Muir is looking to the massive Tongan to add physicality to the Shark pack as a counter to the equally powerful Wycliff Palu. This will probably mean that either the experienced AJ Venter will have to make way on the side of the scrum in the starting line-up or Jean Deysel, who made an immediate impact against the Chiefs on Saturday night, will lose his place on the bench.

"We have to match them at the break-down where they out-muscled us last month," said Muir. "There is unfinished business, but we are going to have to play differently and up our game."

Muir, in naming 24 players to travel, stayed with the young and vigorous Steve Sykes and overlooked veteran lock Johan Ackermann while centre/flyhalf/fullback/wing Francois Steyn and tighthead prop BJ Botha, who both missed the weekend game, are back. Reserve centre Andries Strauss drops out of the 22 who did duty against the Chiefs.

Remarkably, after 13 weeks of intense Super 14 action, Muir’s squad is stronger now than at any other stage of the season, with only French flyhalf Frederic Michalak missing.

His most testing selection problem will come in trying to squeeze Steyn into a midfield that excelled against the Chiefs on Saturday night when both Brad Barritt, particularly on defence, and the sniping Adrian Jacobs made important contributions.

Muir is travelling with a lop-sided split of 15 forwards and nine backs but believes he has the versatility in the squad to cover the gaps behind the scrum. Taione and reserve hooker Craig Burden have played much of their rugby in the backline, while nearly all nine backs can play in at least two positions.

Semi-final squad:

Forwards: Tendai Mtawarira, Deon Carstens, Brendon Botha, Jannie du Plessis, Bismarck du Plessis, Craig Burden, Albert van den Berg, Johann Muller, Steven Sykes, Epi Taione, AJ Venter, Keegan Daniel, Jacques Botes, Ryan Kankowski, Jean Deysel.

Backs: Ruan Pienaar, Rory Kockott, Francois Steyn, Bradley Barritt, Waylon Murray, Adrian Jacobs, JP Pietersen, Odwa Ndungane, Stefan Terblanche.

Kick-off is at noon on Saturday.

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