savage Super Rugby showdown between the Sharks and the Stormers at Kings Park tomorrow

THE signs are that this is going to be one savage Super Rugby showdown between the Sharks and the Stormers at Kings Park tomorrow (5pm) and the team with the most key players still standing at the death, and the most accurate goal-kicker, will be the likely winner.

That might sound dramatic but consider this: Last year the Stormers were flying high in the Super 14 until they came to Durban late in the competition (the week before they had thumped the Crusaders while the Sharks had been knocked out of contention by the Bulls) and were cut down to size by the Sharks’ forwards; later in the year, in their Western Province incarnation, the Capetonians were bullied once more in the set pieces and especially the breakdowns in the Currie Cup final and were never in the game and lost comprehensively.

Two big games, two humiliations at Kings Park and now a full-on resolve from Schalk Burger’s team to avoid a hat-trick of defeats to the Durbanites.

The Sharks know how to beat the Stormers, who in turn know what they have to do to avoid defeat.

Burger, who had a rib broken by Willem Alberts in the Currie Cup final and was then ironically and consequentially replaced by Alberts in the Springbok touring squad, has been open about his team’s refusal to come second in the physical battle this time.

“We got outmuscled up front in two games at the Shark Tank last year and lost as a result,” Burger said. “It must not happen again, obviously. We know what we have to do.

“I suppose, in a way, it is a similar mental barrier to the one we had against the Bulls, where we had to try to compete with them physically and in first-phase, as well as getting off to a good start. We got that right at Loftus a fortnight ago and now we must do it in Durban,” Burger added.

There could not be a more obvious declaration of intent from the Stormers and given that the Sharks will not take a backward step on their home turf, this match is not going to be for the faint of heart.

The Sharks are at last at home after a scarcely believable travel schedule that saw them take in four countries in four weeks. They went from Durban to Perth, then Melbourne, Hamilton, Durban again and London before returning to Surf City.

The travel has clearly taken its toll. On Wednesday coach John Plumtree had to call off training because five players had the flu, which is why the Sharks are yet to name their team. All that time in airplane cabins, with the world’s germs being constantly circulated, will inevitably take its toll.

The Sharks are also waiting to see if stand-in flyhalf Jacques-Louis Potgieter’s injured calf gets through today’s captain’s practice okay.

The suggestions from training are that there will be two changes to the side that lost to the Crusaders in Twickenham, with JP Pietersen replacing Lwazi Mvovo on the left wing and Beast Mtawarira getting a start at loosehead prop for John Smit.

Sharks (probable): 15 Louis Ludik 14 Odwa Ndungane 13 Stefan Terblanche (capt) 12 Meyer Bosman 11 JP Pietersen 10 Jacques-Louis Potgieter 9 Charl Mcleod 8 Ryan Kankowski 7 Willem Alberts 6 Keegan Daniel 5 Alistair Hargreaves 4 Steven Sykes 3 Jannie du Plessis 2 Bismarck du Plessis 1 Beast Mtawarira.

Stormers – 15 Gio Aplon, 14 Danie Poolman, 13 Jaque Fourie, 12 Jean de Villiers, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Peter Grant, 9 Dewaldt Duvenage, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Francois Louw, 6 Schalk Burger (c), 5 Andries Bekker, 4 Rynhardt Elstadt, 3 Brok Harris, 2 Deon Fourie, 1 Wicus Blaauw.

Substitutes: Ethienne Reynecke, CJ van der Linde, De Kock Steenkamp, Nick Koster, Ricky Januarie, Gary van Aswegen, Juan de Jongh.

by MIKE GREENAWAY

THE Springboks will be banking on this gameplan for the 2011 event.

MIKE GREENAWAY

THE Springboks will be banking on the game plan blueprint of the 2007 Rugby World Cup triumph at the 2011 event. This was much suggested in the naming yesterday of what amounts to be a preliminary Springbok Rugby World Cup squad that bares little difference to that of France four years ago and then confirmed when Peter de Villiers pointed to last November’s victory over England at Twickenham as the way forward, if that is the correct turn of phrase.

It is going to be a hugely contentious debate leading up the Boks’ title defence. Can the Springboks continue to successfully play the same way as ever while the game is continuing to evolve towards favouring the team that keeps the ball? Last year’s Tri-Nations hinted strongly that the strangulation game was up for the Boks but this was countered by De Villiers’ colourful contention that “the recipe was good – we just did not have the right pots and pans”, an allusion mainly to the absence of Fourie du Preez, the principle protagonist of the Boks’ brilliant kick-and-chase strategy of 2009.

As always in rugby, it is problematic to compare one year with another. In 2009, when a Springbok team at its absolute prime enjoyed unprecedented prevalence over the All Blacks, the Kiwis were in a rebuilding phase and the law focuses regarding freeing up quick ball at the break down were in their infancy.

The next year, the leaden-footed Boks were given a Tri-Nations hiding by adversaries that had bought into the new game. From champions in 2009 they won just once in 2010, a last-minute victory over the Wallabies in Pretoria.

The big question is this: is the Boks’ game plan out of date or was it simply a case of it being badly implemented in 2010? Can the Boks prevail in New Zealand or will the Cup go to a team that keeps the ball, which would be a first in World Cup history?

This year’s Super Rugby has already added fuel to the fire. The Bulls have Fourie du Preez back and while he personally does not look too bad, his team are playing wretchedly. Again, it is the question of whether it is the players (who are off-key) or the game plan.

De Villiers is convinced that the strategy is sound (make no mistake, the Boks played Bulls rugby on their end-of-year tour under Victor Matfield’s captaincy, not that it would have been different under John Smit.) And Bulls rugby is not far off what the Boks played under Jake White. To paraphrase – you dominate the set pieces and the tackle, you play territory with the kick-and-chase, you crank up the pressure via mechanisms such as the driving maul and earn penalties, and then you kick the goals.

The Boks were very poor at this against Scotland in November but then smashed England off the park, which is what De Villiers highlighted yesterday.

The thing is, England are not Australia or New Zealand.

The Sharks versus Crusaders match last week showcased rugby at its best and the Northern Hemisphere took serious notice.

But De Villiers did make one good point yesterday when he pointed out that competition rugby tends to be different to tournament rugby. Teams get increasingly conservative as the pressure cranks up.

Will this be the first World Cup where the team that keeps the ball wins? Again a question that nobody can really answer, which is what makes team sport so special.

Public criticism of Springbok captain John Smit should be reserved

Public criticism of Springbok captain John Smit should be reserved until he has had an opportunity in his favoured position of hooker in the Super Rugby competition, says national coach Peter de Villiers, who has expressed his frustration at not being able to judge the form of his World Cup captain.

Speaking at yesterday’s announcement of the 23 contracted Springboks for the 2011 season, De Villiers said: “It is unfair that there has been negativity about John because he shouldn’t be playing prop after having lost weight to be a hooker once more.

“I respect him so much for the fact that when I needed him to play tighthead prop for South Africa, he agreed without question and put on weight so he could handle the position, then when Jannie du Plessis developed into a good tighthead and BJ Botha came back from Ireland, I told him I wanted him at hooker again, so he went and got into condition for the more mobile position but is now being played at prop,” De Villiers said.

“I can’t see why they (the Sharks) don’t give him a chance at his best position.” He added.

The answer is the imposing figure of Bismarck du Plessis, who is in sensational form and is quite possibly the best hooker in the world right now.

Sharks coach John Plumtree was asked at a press conference on Tuesday whether Smit would play hooker at some stage and he wearily answered, as if fed up of the old Smit-Bismarck debate: “It is a very long competition and I have only two hookers in the squad (Craig Burden is now with the Sharks XV in the Vodacom Cup) – everybody will get a chance to start and come off the bench. I hope that answers the question.”

Meanwhile De Villiers says the slimmer Smit’s work rate is compromised by the fact that he is playing prop.

“He has to work very hard to hold his own in the scrums and it is taking the firepower out of his legs. It is hard for him to get around the field and get to the form people think he is no longer capable of.”

De Villiers is hopeful that as the marathon Super Rugby competition wears on, rotation will see Smit get his chance in the Sharks No 2 jersey.

“The way I see it, the Stormers are making a plan with their three (Springbok) centres (Jaque Fourie, Jean de Villiers and Juan de Jongh), and the Bulls with their four (Bok) locks. They rotate,” De Villiers observed.

“The problem for me is that right now I can’t say John will be my starting hooker at the World Cup because I can’t judge him. Very importantly, if he is not No 1 he will definitely be No 2, but currently he is nowhere and I have to try and judge him on previous achievements.”

De Villiers says he will be out of the country for a week or so and then plans to meet with Plumtree.

“We have to work together to help a great servant of South African rugby,” De Villiers said. “We are talking about the most capped captain in international rugby. It is a frustrating time for me because to judge him I need to see him at hooker.”

There are no surprises in the squad of contracted players announced by the coach but he did add that these players were not guaranteed a free ride to the World Cup.

“We offer contracts so that we keep the best players in the country playing against each other, for the obvious reason of maintaining high standards,” he said. “But I have seen a number of new young faces putting their hands up this year and if they keep it up we could have some surprises in the World Cup squad.”

De Villiers said the door was also not shut on overseas-based Springboks such as Francois Steyn and Ruan Pienaar.

“A guy like Frans is certainly in the picture and I am hopeful that the Lions can get it right o bring him back from France for the second half of Super Rugby.”

Savage Super showdown with the Stormers on Saturday

IT does not get any easier for the Sharks. Four countries in four weeks, the (relative) horror of an overseas flight in cattle class between London and Johannesburg, a jaw-droppping battle with a Crusaders team that is skilled and brutal in equal measures, and now a homecoming war with the Bulls-beating, SA Conference trend-setting, Stormers.

Yesterday morning, the Twickenham sweat barely showered off their backs, the Sharks were back at the coal face on the Kings Park training pitch and getting their heads around the certainty of a savage Super showdown with the Stormers.

Coach John Plumtree yesterday fronted at a media conference in the Shark Tank and while he wasn’t exactly rattling his team’s sabres he was certainly letting the Stormers know that the Sharks mean business in the two home matches in front of them before their bye ( they host the Lions next week).

“Our big boys battled a bit in economy class (there were not enough seats at the front of the plane) and not having a bed to sleep in has probably been the worst part of a hectic month of travelling,” Plumtree said. “In all honesty I don’t know what effect all the travelling will have on us. When we agreed as a group to do the London trip, we all committed to it, and we’re certainly not going to use it as any kind of excuse against the Stormers. If how we trained this morning is any indication, we’re in good shape.”

Well mostly in good shape. The exception from the London excursion being flyhalf Jacques-Louis Potgieter, who yesterday afternoon was having a scan on a calf injury, the results of which are not yet known.

Potgieter, of course, was standing in for Patrick Lambie (finger injury) against the Crusaders and if he is out, that is likely to mean Meyer Bosman moving from 12 to 10 and while that is exactly what he did when Potgieter got injured on Sunday, Bosman has hardly played in the position since Jake White picked him as a 20-year-old out of nowhere for a Test match against Wales in 2005.

If Bosman has to play 10, it could mean a recall for Riaan Swanepoel at 12.

“We’re hoping Jacques-Louis has a better than average chance of making it this week,” Plumtree said of the Sharks’ (surprisingly) only injury concern, although it is in a crucial position.

So how do the Sharks regard the Stormers after the hype and hoopla of Twickenham?

“In terms of physical presence, they are pretty similar to the Crusaders: they’re big in the midfield, their pack is physical, and defensively they’re well-organised,” Plumtree said. “I guess in terms of skill level, the Crusaders are superior, but then they’re superior to everyone.

“We’re playing a top side on the weekend, they’re top of the log and haven’t lost a game, it’s going to be a huge challenge. These types of games have a different edge because they’re local, and I’m sure it’s going to be a really good game.”

The defeat to the Crusaders has given Plumtree plenty to think about, a fair amount to be proud about, and plenty to build on this week.

“In the first quarter we made one or two errors defensively and bang, it was 14 points because of the skill of Dan Carter and Sonny Bill Williams. The Stormers have very good players in those same positions and hopefully we won’t again miss the one-off tackles that allowed line-breaks and subsequent tries,” the coach reflected.

“Our restarts weren’t good enough in terms of scrums and kick-offs – we let them in too early,” Plumtree continued. “You can’t afford not to be clinical against the Crusaders, especially with the basics, and some of our basics weren’t good enough on the weekend.”

On a positive note, Plumtree noted that his team ultimately made less tackles than the Crusaders.

“I was really pleased with the way we played in the second half. They had to make 60-odd more tackles than us in the end, and that was how we played last year where the tackle count of the opposition was higher than us every game. So if we can get more clinical in our bacics and play with that kind of intensity, we will have a good chance of beating the Stormers.”

by Mike Greenaway www.iol.co.za

crunch time for the Sharks

MIKE GREENAWAY

THE next fortnight will be crucial to the ultimate outcome of the Sharks’ 2011 Super 15 campaign reckons coach John Plumtree of his team’s matches this week at home to the Stormers and away next week to the Lions.

The much-travelled Sharks will then enjoy their bye week and will take stock of what have they achieved, where they are on the various logs and the condition of the troops after what will have been eight battles on consecutive weekends.

The Sharks return from their Twickenham showdown with the Crusaders with mixed feelings. Their four-match overseas tour yielded 12 points from a possible 20, which is actually pretty good considering the general record of SA teams abroad, but Plumtree says a vital juncture has now been reached with the home game against the table-topping Capetonians and then the visit to the cellar dweller Lions which, with respect to his old mate John Mitchell, is a game the Sharks really ought to win.

“It is a big two weeks for us going into the bye, make no mistake,” Plumtree said shortly after returning from London yesterday. “It is very important that we finish this stage of the campaign on a high, with confidence in what we are doing. If we want to be any good in the second half of the competition, how we play in the next two weeks is extremely important.

“To be honest, this travel all over the world has been bleak (four countries in four weeks) and we now need to get everybody fit, brush up on the obvious areas of our game that are taking strain and move our performance up a level.”

Against the Crusaders, the set scrums were a disaster, the line-outs creaked at times, the restarts were occasionally clumsy and the midfield defence was shown up.

Regarding the scrums, Plumtree forthrightly said: “There are no excuses. Jannie, Bismarck (the du Plessis brothers) and John Smit are disappointed in their performances, but it is not just the front row, the whole pack contributes to the scrumming. It is a big wake-up call for all of them.”

On the injury front, there is a big worry regarding the calf injury sustained by flyhalf Jacques-Louis Potgieter, who in turn was standing in for injured Patrick Lambie (finger).

“We are holding thumbs that Jacques-Louis will respond to treatment and be okay for the Stormers,” Pumtree said.

If he does not make it, Meyer Bosman will move from 12 to 10 (as he did in the Crusaders game).

Plumtree said that the overall mood in his squad following the 44-28 defeat to the Crusaders was buoyant.

“At half time the question put to the boys was this: ‘Are they that good or are we that bad?’ The guys said that as well as the Crusaders were playing, they had personally not been up to scratch, and that come what may over the next 40, they would give a proud account of themselves,” Plumtree explained.

“They did, and there have been many positive reflections on the game, but it is nevertheless a concern that we knew before the game that we would have to play above ourselves for the whole 80 minutes and then didn’t in the first 40,”Plumtree said.

The Sharks were the first South African team the Crusaders encountered this year and Plumtree had this warning for the Sharks’ countrymen.

“They have been building for a few years and are now the benchmark of the competition. Their set pieces are outstanding; if they turn over possession they make you work very hard to get it back and, of course, they have game-breakers everywhere.”

by Mike Greenaway

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