- The Sharks game against the Bulls at Kings Park is make-or-break in determining whether the hosts can reel in the rampant Bulls on Saturday.
- The Bulls, who’ve lost just once since rugby’s restart, are now the benchmark team to beat.
- Stopping Cornal Hendricks and Marco van Staden should be foremost in the Sharks’ minds.
The Sharks game against the Bulls at Kings Park on Saturday is make-or-break in determining whether the hosts can reel in the rampant Bulls, who are eight points clear atop the Currie Cup log.
It is also going to serve as a clear indication whether the Super Rugby form Sean Everitt’s charges showed earlier this year can be sustained long into the future.
It’s all good putting 45 points on the Pumas but the Bulls, who’ve lost just once since rugby’s September restart, and gone on to win Super Rugby Unlocked, are now the benchmark team to beat.
So, how do the Sharks, who lost 41-14 to the Bulls at Loftus in October, halt this juggernaut?
Take care of the obvious (scrum, lineout, maul)
The disclaimer here must be added at the beginning: Thomas du Toit limped off injured the last time the Bulls and Sharks met, so the scrums weren’t a true reflection of either team’s might.
However, it still goes without saying, the scrum will be the most vital part of the contest.
Two Bok-laden front rows come up against each other and it will come down to who gets early confidence from this confrontation.
The Sharks lineout was in disarray at Loftus but has improved since Dylan Richardson moved from hooker to the side of the scrum.
Added to the Bulls’ lineout threat is their drive, from which they have profited tries aplenty already this season.
Bulls predictability is back but so is unstoppable-ity
Following on from the point of the lineout drive, the Bulls are as clear as day in terms of what they will do under Jake White: bring out the bulldozer up front and unleash the greyhounds at the back.
It’s very Jose Mourinho-like, in that you know exactly what’s coming but you’re battling to stop it, even with all that knowledge.
White has the Bulls scrapping like a pack of wild dogs as well, which has given them the fight they lacked under previous coaches in the unsuccessful stretch between 2011 and 2020 (pre-White).
They have readopted their back-to-basics approach, which served them superbly under Heyneke Meyer and Frans Ludeke, and garnished it with some silky players like Stedman Gans and Kurt-Lee Arendse.
It’s a dynastic mix that the Sharks will have to cater for especially.
Test Cornal Hendricks at 12
For some inexplicable reason, winger Cornal Hendricks has been allowed to have his way in what was supposed to be an unfamiliar inside centre position.
He has danced, jived, off-loaded and broken the gain line almost at will since switching from the three-quarter positions into midfield.
The 32-year-old has not looked at all like he never played the position before (at least at this level) and a lot of it has to do with shy opponents leaving him to be.
It might be too late to knock the mountain of confidence the Springbok has accumulated by now but the Sharks need a special plan to stop Hendricks from feeding his voracious partner Gans on the outside.
Steal a leaf out of Elton Jantjies’ playbook (cc: Curwin Bosch)
Curwin Bosch can, on his day, take over any game but lately he has played within himself (a view countered by his coach Everitt).
It could be that he is adding other dimensions to the many that come with being a pivot, and learning how to orchestrate the game like a traditional "stand-off" or simply playing to the coach’s playbook.
However, with the heavy kicking to the opposition, it’s so far proven to play into the hands of direct opponents such as the Bulls and Griquas, who ran them ragged in Kimberley last month.
Some intuitive, imaginative play, the like Elton Jantjies is known for, could be the tonic to catch the stubborn Bulls defence unaware this weekend.
The Bulls are expecting a contestable high kick but are they expecting an inside ball to, perhaps, Sbu Nkosi or Madosh Tambwe?
How about a dink behind the first line of defence, exploiting the hole in front of the fullback, who is likely to hang back, expecting a deeper kick?
Moments of tension can sometimes be broken by moments of calculated risk and valour.
Take care of Marco van Staden
Much like Hendricks, specialist fetcher Marco van Staden has been left by opponents to roam freely at the breakdown, where he’s run riot.
The 25-year-old had a decent run during the old Super Rugby campaign, even though the Bulls struggled in Pote Human’s latter weeks in charge.
Under White, however, he has turbo-charged himself back into Springbok reckoning, with consistent and elevated performances.
It might be time the Sharks man-marked him at the breakdown, making sure he gets little to nothing to scavenge off, by putting someone like Phepsi Buthelezi to work on cleaning him out.
It’s like the Maro Itoje role in the England team, who picks a victim and puts him out of the breakdown game completely.