We are 20 years into Super Rugby, and there have been detractors that have said the competition has run its course, but how can you give a death sentence to a competition that after just one round has a premier team in the Sharks fighting for their lives?
For those who think this a melodramatic statement, consider the following: it is a given that teams hoping for a shot at the title first and foremost have to win their home games. The Sharks have lost their first home game, a fixture every rugby pundit in the Southern Hemisphere, outside of The Volksblad newspaper in Bloemfontein, said they would win.
And tomorrow they host a Lions team that for a few years now under the ultimate rugby rabble rouser, Johan Ackermann, a living legend that was still bossing the Bok scrum at the age of 37, have been threatening to restore the red and white to the glory days of the ‘90s when, funnily enough, they were the chief rivals to the Sharks.
The Lions lost last week to the Hurricanes in a match they totally dominated in Johannesburg, but they could not put the ball between the uprights while the bemused Wellingtonians scored tries on rare forays into the Lions half, and won a game they had no right to.
So the Lions are miffed. So too are the Sharks, whose game against the Cheetahs was glaringly similar to the Lions’ game.
So we have two annoyed teams determined to right the wrongs of last weekend. The difference is that there is way more pressure on the Sharks, the home team.
Let’s look at it like this. The Sharks have already broken the cardinal rule of losing at home. And if they lose at home to the Lions, what chance have they got of winning their next three fixtures – away to the Bulls at Loftus, then the Stormers in Cape Town, followed by the a return joust with the Cheetahs in Bloem?.
We are saying that if the Sharks lose tomorrow, they could well end up 0-5 down after five weeks of the competition, stone last, and fighting a rearguard battle for the rest of the tournament.
So is this a must-win game for the Sharks? You bet your life it is, because a second successive home defeat will rob them of confidence and momentum going into three away derbies against South African teams.
The stakes could not be higher for the Sharks. Lose and face the possibility of going five-zip down or win, enhance belief in the game plan, and stand a chance of winning some of those three away games before a homecoming match against the Chiefs, the recent two-time champions who will hardly be push-overs, the home ground advantage of Kings Park notwithstanding.
Gary Gold, the Director of Coaching who is only into his second week in charge after the pre-season had been under the tutelage of Brendan Venter, has had to make several injury-enforced changes to his team. Lock Mouritz Botha is out with an eye injury and is replaced by the exiting Pumas lock Giant Mtyanda. He is an exceptional talent and is indeed a beast, speaking of which, Tendai Mtawarira is sidelined with a calf injury, and that is okay given the excellent form Dale Chadwick showed when he came on as substitute at loosehead prop, and is rewarded with a start in the position.
On the right wing, there is a welcome return for veteran Odwa Ndungane because of an injury to S’Bura Sithole. The loss of the latter is a blow, and when he is fit it is hoped that his dynamicism will find its way back into the midfield, where he can be a potent threat at outside centre.
At hooker, captain Bismarck du Plessis is restored after missing the opening match with a shoulder complaint. The TV cameras that trained on him last week showed a man in patent torment.
“You saw a Sharks man suffering serious disappointment,” Du Plessis said. “I just knew that we were a much better side than that. We let ourselves down in a lot of areas of the field, especially when it came to exiting out of our own half. We had the right idea of how we want to play, but were not doing it in the right areas of the field.”
Du Plessis will be on pitch tomorrow night to direct affairs. Sharks fans will be desperate for him to expertly conduct the home orchestra. Because if he gets it wrong, and the Sharks lose two home games in a row, they almost certainly will go five games down, and it will be a forlorn battle from then on.
Sharks: 15 SP Marais, 14 Odwa Ndungane, 13 Waylon Murray, 12 Heimar Williams, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Patrick Lambie, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Tera Mtembu, 7 Renaldo Bothma, 6 Marcell Coetzee, 5 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 4 Lubabalo Mtyanda, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis (capt), 1 Dale Chadwick.
Subs: Kyle Cooper, Thomas du Toit, Matt Stevens, Marco Wentzel, Jean Deysel, Conrad Hoffmann, Fred Zeilinga, André Esterhuizen.
Lions: 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Howard Mnisi, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Marnitz Boshoff, 9 Ross Cronje, 8 Warren Whiteley (capt), 7 Warwick Tecklenburg, 6 Derick Minnie, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Martin Muller, 3 Ruan Dreyer, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1. Jacques van Rooyen.
Subs: Robbie Coetzee, Schalk van der Merwe, Julian Redelinghuys, JP du Preez, Ruaan Lerm, Faf de Klerk, Elton Jantjies, Harold Vorster.
by Mike Greenaway