the Sharks are a happy team so far

MIKE GREENAWAY

This time last year, the Sharks were in Christchurch preparing for their first tour game, with just two points in the bank (from two narrow losses at home) and no flyhalf to speak of (Andy Goode joined the team later that week.

A year on, John Plumtree’s decidedly merrier men are top of the South African conference (on points difference) and are second only to the Waratahs on the overall log, while in Patrick Lambie they have a flyhalf that is improving with every Super Rugby outing and they have prime insurance in the position in Jacques-Louis Potgieter, who proved his worth in snaffling a pass from Blues fullback Ice Toeava that cost the Blues a try and instead gave JP Pietersen the winning score for the Sharks.

And for Plumtree, a hugely positive fact is that the Sharks have won their games without conceding a try.

“We were better than last week, weren’t we,” Plumtree asked rhetorically, and with a wry grin. “It was disappointing that we did not finish off a few more tries, but to keep a team as dangerous as the Blues scoreless was a big highlight. We knew we would have to shut down their space and scramble hard to stop their lethal back three, and be accurate in defence around the rucks – we talked about it and then went out and executed it, so I have to hand it to the boys. They really wanted that game tonight and our change room was full of exhausted bodies.”

And one extremely sore one. Eugene van Staden, the replacement prop formerly of Griquas, suffered a serious collar bone injury not long after he had taken the field and enjoyed a sprightly run down the touchline, which culminated in a grubber that was deft for a roly-poly fellow.

“Eugene won’t tour, which is a big pity for him because he has yet to leave South Africa,” Plumtree said with smile. A replacement will come from one of two up-and-comers, Dale Chadwick and Wiehahn Herbst, both of who were scrambling to get visas for Australia yesterday. One of them will join the Sharks in Perth later this week.

Plumtree said that Sherman tank flank Jean Deysel is on course to join the team in Melbourne, for the second tour game. Deysel seriously injured knee ligaments six months ago.

The other long-term injury is to Ross Skeate, who broke a finger in the Neo Africa Tri Series in Cape Town in early February, and that came not long after he had recovered from groin surgery following a gym mishap. Plumtree said that the plan with Skeate was to leave him behind to do serious conditioning and only call him up to the tour should there be second-row casualties.

Meanwhile, Blues coach Pat Lam praised the Sharks for their ability to put his team under pressure.

“We had 25 lost possessions and that effectively killed our chances of building pressure, and that is credit to the Sharks’ defence,” the former captain of Samoa said. “We had little go-forward and we were messy at set piece, again credit to the Sharks. It is a pity because this could have been a very good game. Mind you I guess it was from a Sharks perspective!”

Lam pointed out that his team had spilled the pill seven times against the Crusaders in their brilliant win over the seven-times champions the week before but this had mushroomed into that total of 25.

“The Sharks forced that error count. They are a good side and are certainly our nemesis! They will definitely be contenders if they play to their potential. They have a good core of Springbok forwards and an excellent coach in Plum. They are touring early, which is an advantage and they will be looking to reap whatever points they can and then come back to South Africa and make a charge for the play-offs.”

It is hard to believe it is 15 years since the Sharks and Blues delivered an all-time classic at Kings Park in the first ever season of Super rugby.

It is hard to believe it is 15 years since the Sharks and Blues delivered an all-time classic at Kings Park in the first ever season of Super rugby.

Gary Teichmann’s Sharks just lost to Zinzan Brooke’s All Blacks team deputising as Auckland (Sean Fitzpatrick was at hooker but was not the captain, and you-name-it was in the side from Michael Jones to Joeli Vidiri), and these two teams went on to dominate the competition for the rest of the 90s, with the Blues winning two titles and the Sharks losing in two finals.

Graham Henry, incidentally, recently described that ‘96 match in Durban as one of the favourites of his entire career (the All Black coach was the Auckland boss back then). It really was the stuff of folklore and none of the 48 000 present that day will forget Henry Honiball making two tackles with a broken hand behind his back during an endless period of Auckland possession.

Then the Crusaders and Brumbies got going and the early-pacesetters hit leaner times, but that early rivalry has persevered and the two sides have often saved their best for each other (the Blues had a brief rally in 2003 when they won their third title while the Sharks also recovered to make the final in 2001 before hitting the doldrums until the 2007 final).

In 18 Super matches between the sides the Sharks have won 10, the Blues eight; in Durban the Sharks have won six of the nine matches, the Blues three, but the revealing statistic is the Blues’ failure to beat the Sharks for five years. The last time they won was in Auckland in 2005 and the Sharks have now won six in a row (including a semi-final in 2007).

But this is the third year now that popular Pat Lam is head coach and Aucklanders believe the Blues will settle down and get their act together after a number of years of maddening inconsistency. Last year was a perfect case in point. Their season read like this: lost, won, won, lost, won, lost, won, lost, lost, won, won.

The Blues finished seventh, and ninth the year before, and their country expects them to kick on now.

Lam, an Auckland-born Samoan who captained Manu Samoa in his playing days as a tough-tackling loose forward, has long been trying to instil the “team” ethic in his side and appears to have struck a chord at last given how the Blues recovered from a big half-time deficit last week to beat the Crusaders.

For some time the Blues have matched the seven-times champions for talent but have not had the iron discipline or that priceless fabric of “tightness amongst players” that underpins the Crusaders.

And the Sharks? This is the year they are primed to be consistent across an entire season. They have the best coach in South Africa by a country mile in John Plumtree but since he took over from Dick Muir his charges have been inconsistent from the first half of a season to the second, rather than from game to game.

Last year, various circumstances conspired towards a wretched five-loss start that was grittily transformed into a seven-from-eight victory run, while the year before the Sharks had beaten all before them until the halfway mark and then disintegrated.

In summary, we have a Sharks team due to peak under a good coach and a Blues team primed for the same.

It is going to be the pick of the weekend’s games – that is the only thing you can be assured of!

The Sharks have made just one change to their starting line-up. Openside flank Keegan Daniels is fully over injury and wins his 50th cap, with Jacques Botes reverting to the bench.

Springbok captain John Smit is just about over his calf injury and has been included on the bench at the expense of Craig Burden.

Another Springbok, JP Pietersen, returns from pre-season injury to play off the bench.

The Blues have named an unchanged starting line-up.

Sharks: 15 Louis Ludik, 14 Odwa Ndungane, 13 Stefan Terblanche (capt), 12 Meyer Bosman, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Patrick Lambie, 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.

Substitutes: John Smit, Eugene van Staden, Anton Bresler, Jacques Botes, Conrad Hoffmann, Jacques-Louis Potgieter, JP Pietersen.

Blues: 15 Isaia Toeava, 14 Joe Rokocoko, 13 Jared Payne, 12 Benson Stanley, 11 Rene Ranger, 10 Stephen Brett, 9 Alby Mathewson, 8 Chris Lowrey, 7 Daniel Braid, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Ali Williams, 4 Anthony Boric, 3 John Afoa, 2 Keven Mealamu, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Substitutes: Tom McCartney, Charlie Faumuina, Kurtis Haiu, Luke Braid, Toby Morland, Luke McAlister, Sherwin Stowers.
by Mike Greenaway www.iol.co.za

At the risk of tempting fate for the Sharks

At the risk of tempting fate for the Sharks, one of the quirks of Super Rugby is the Sharks’ brilliant record against the Blues, who they have beaten six times in a row since Kevin Putt’s team lost heavily in Auckland in 2005 – including a semi-final win in Durban in 2007 and three wins on New Zealand soil.
What does that come down to, considering the Blues have always been packed with talent? Coach John Plumtree says the quality in the Blues team always brings the best out of his charges.
“The boys see it as a real challenge. You know what the South African players are like against the Kiwis – they enjoy the confrontation,” he said. “Apart from that, there are certain things we know we have to do against them, which I am not going to elaborate on in the press, but suffice to say that if you want to stop them playing well, you need to be organised and get your detail right in the game plan, and that’s been our focus over the last couple days.”
The Blues certainly pose a very different challenge to the Cheetahs of last week, who offered nothing other than a hoof-and-hope strategy. Their backs were not used at all but the Blues back division will be gainfully employed on Saturday, make no mistake.
“The Blues are chock-a-block full of All Blacks and have so much X-factor out wide, as they always do,” Plumtree said. “You look at attacking ability (of the back three) of Joe Rokocoko, Rene Ranger and Isaia Toeava, while in the midfield there are exiting players in Jared Payne and Benson Stanley, and then at flyhalf Stephen Brett has a number of Super Rugby campaigns behind him, plus Alby Mathewson is a quality scrumhalf and an All Black, so their backs are outstanding. If we kick poorly they will hurt us on the counter-attack and if we turn ball over, they’ll hurt us with width. They are all good steppers, so it’s the same speech I’ve prepared every year when we play the Blues.”
As far as the Sharks are concerned, Plumtree said that late calls will be made on injury worries in John Smit, Jacques Botes, Charl McLeod and JP Pietersen. Smit (calf) and Pietersen (hamstring) did not play against the Cheetahs.
“JP is looking better and Charl (calf) will do some jogging today. He’s improving and we’re expecting him to make it for the weekend,” said the coach.
That means the only two squad members out of the picture this week are Jean Deysel and Ross Skeate, both of whom are expected to be ready for the tour opener against the Force next week in Perth.

by Mike Greenaway www.iol.co.za

Springbok captain John Smit’s participation in Saturday’s big clash with the high-riding B lues is in the balance

Springbok captain John Smit’s participation in Saturday’s big clash with the high-riding Blues is in the balance, the same goes for another Springbok JP Pietersen, as well as openside flank Jacques Botes, but the good news is that scrumhalf Charl McLeod should be good to go.

Smit pulled out of the Super Rugby opener against the Cheetahs at the last minute because of a calf injury; Pietersen suffered a hamstring injury in training a fortnight ago, McLeod limped off against the Cheetahs with his own calf problem while Botes bruised his hip against a Cheetahs head and was replaced early on by Keegan Daniel, who might well have started if he was not coming off his own back injury.

“John has a grade one calf strain (which is relatively minor) so there is possibility of him playing this weekend,” coach John Plumtree said. “We are working hard to get him right but if it is not this week he should be fine for the (opening) tour match against the Force (next week’s third-round match). It depends how fast he heals. He is a big man and there is a fair amount of weight coming down on those calves!”

PLumtree said that McLeod had responded well to treatment.

“He is a fast healer. He was sore on Sunday but has responded very well to treatment and he should be okay by Saturday,” Plumtree said.

If he does not make it, former Stormer Conrad Hoffman will step in and the back-up on the bench would be Tiaan Meyer, the former Sharks age group player that has been loaned from the Pumas.

“JP has a good chance of playing and Jacques is also responding well, but obviously we will be clearer on all these niggles later in the week,” Plumtree added.

Having reflected on the match video, Plumtree said he was generally pleased with his team’s effort in trying conditions.

“I would say there were more positives than negatives and let’s face it, the Cheetahs are a team that fancy their chances of beating us. We hear a lot about how they have beaten us over the years but they don’t mention the defeats nearly as much,” Plumtree said, having a subtle dig.

“The areas we were not so good in included the line-outs; and we did not launch well (from set pieces) which meant we struggled to get momentum going,” he said. “Among the positives were our discipline (just six penalties), our scrumming, much of our kicking and our defence – although the nature of the game (the slippery conditions and the large amount of kicking) meant we were not overly stressed on defence.

“But we expect to make at least triple the tackles this week against the Blues,” Plumtree added.

The Aucklanders arrived in Durban yesterday fresh from having beaten the seven-time champion Crusaders at Eden Park. They are the first touring team to scorn either Umhlanga Rocks or the beach front for a hotel at Gateway, and they will train at Crawford College at La Lucia.

www.iol.co.za by Mike Greenaway

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