A new team for a new beginning
The headline act for this weekend’s round of Vodacom Super Rugby is undeniably the early Sunday morning Christchurch re-run of last year’s final, but much of the local focus will be on the Sharks’ 'backs to the wall' last-ditch attempt to save a faltering season.
The Sharks have spent so much time in the Last Chance Saloon in the past few seasons that it has become a second home to them, and there are times you wonder whether they prefer the extra pressure that comes with playing a game that you have no choice but to win in order to keep yourself in the championship race.
They do have a tendency to win the ones they really have to, so Sharks fans will be visiting Mr Price Kings Park for this weekend’s clash with the Highlanders in the hope that they will see the spirit of last year’s massive win over the Bulls in Pretoria rekindled.
The Sharks’ bye came at an opportune time in the sense that it just about bisects their schedule, and their coaches have responded with what looks like the right policy by making as if this is a new beginning for them. It certainly looks like a different team from the one that battled for consistency in the first few months of the season, with the morale-boosting returns of stars like Beast Mtwarira being complemented by selections geared towards making it clear that players have to perform if they want to remain part of the team.
Among those jettisoned this week include fullback Riaan Viljoen, who pays for two poor games in the No 15 jersey with his place in the squad, and Springbok loose-forward Willem Alberts. The latter move is particularly interesting as Alberts has struggled to repeat in a Sharks jersey the form that made him such a talking point in the early stages of last year’s competition but always seemed to have too much standing to be dropped.
By leaving him out, coach John Plumtree is clearly trying to put a cracker under him, while at the same time rewarding other players for their commitment and consistency. Among the other changes is the return of JP Pietersen to the wing and the selection of Paul Jordaan at outside centre -- indeed, a very different team primed for a new beginning.
But it won’t be easy against a Highlanders team that showed great tenacity in fighting back from a big deficit in Bloemfontein last week to score a freaky win. The Highlanders will have had their confidence boosted by that result, which they might have appreciated as a form of gift.
The other big local focus will be on the Bulls’ opening to their tour. They have a relatively easy beginning in the form of the Rebels in Melbourne, with the debating point there being whether or not they will pocket the four-try bonus point that will enable them to ease ahead of the Stormers in the South African conference. The Stormers have a bye this week and thus secure four log points.
- Weekend’s Teams
- Working the Blindside - video preview
HURRICANES v BLUES (Wellington, Friday 9:35am)
The Hurricanes started well but haven’t been particularly flush just recently, while the Blues just haven’t got going this season. This is one of those where you’re tempted to bet on a scoreless draw…though that might be unfair to the Hurricanes, who at least look like they might be building to a decent future.
Prediction: Hurricanes to win.
REBELS v VODACOM BULLS (Melbourne, Friday 11:40am)
There was a time when you worried about the Bulls when they were in Australia, but those times are long gone. It gets a lot more difficult for them after this week, but they should start their tour positively.
- Bulls team announcement
Prediction: Bulls to win by between 10 and 15.
CHIEFS v MTN LIONS (Pukekohe, Saturday 9:35am)
The Lions have one advantage in that this is an area that their coach John Mitchell should know well. After all he captained the Chiefs for many a year and then coached them. But it is just about the only thing they have going for them against the team that to my money vies with the Stormers for the right to be recognised as the second best in the competition -- behind the Crusaders of course.
- Lions team announcement
Prediction: Chiefs by 15 to 25.
BRUMBIES v WARATAHS (Canberra, Saturday 11:40am)
Yew, I just saw I am down to write about this one off television, and I enjoy Australian derbies as much as I enjoy soaked running shoes at the end of a marathon. But Jake’s presence at the Brumbies at least makes it interesting, though their flight back might be a debilitating factor for his Brumbies team in this one. And the Waratahs looked quite decent against the Crusaders last week, effectively only losing because the other team had Robbie Fruean and they didn’t.
Prediction: Waratahs to scrape it.
SHARKS v HIGHLANDERS (Durban, Saturday 5:05pm)
Backs to the wall, last chance saloons, a new Sharks team … it’s the sort of stuff that usually prefaces one of those great memorable days that those who recall Natal’s previous status as the Last Outpost of the British Empire, a title decreed on it by Tommy Bedford, remember for a long time. Or maybe I am just over-hyping it because I want to find a reason to enjoy the Kings Park after-party on Saturday night.
- Sharks team announcement
Prediction: Sharks to edge it -- simply because they have to.
TOYOTA CHEEETAHS v WESTERN FORCE (Bloemfontein, Saturday 7:10pm)
The Force players haven’t made any promises not to partake of Bloemfontein’s finest brew and unforgettable night-spots, which is one good reason to bet against them being able to do what the Dunedin teetotal brigade did last week by rising from the dead. A reason why they might have some hope though is the fact that Johan Goosen won’t be part of the Cheetahs effort in this one. And he is a special enough player for his absence to make a difference.
Prediction: Cheetahs by 7 to 14.
CRUSADERS v REDS (Christchurch, Sunday 6am)
The Reds are starting to come right but the Crusaders owe them big time after last year and it would be a huge surprise were the seven-time champions not to avenge themselves in fine style on their 2011 nemesis.
Prediction: Crusaders by 10 to 15.