Whitehead’s absence gives Plumtree a headache
You should never change a winning team, particularly when that team has been in the rich vein of form the Sharks have been recently, but the Durbanites are going to be forced to make at least one change to the side that beat the Stormers for Saturday’s Super Rugby final against the Chiefs in Hamilton.
The Sharks are now in Coogee trying to take their minds off rugby and rest up before switching their focus on again when they fly across the Tasman Sea on the last leg of their journey to the north island of New Zealand on Thursday. But while the players will be relaxing and enjoying the vibe of the Sydney suburb, coach John Plumtree has been given quite a bit to think about through the non-availability of centre Tim Whitehead.
The former Western Province player sustained an injury to his hand during the 26-19 win over his former Stormers teammates at Newlands and after being assessed by medical staff back in South Africa, the Sharks have confirmed that he won’t be making the trip to Australia to join up with his teammates.
That will obviously be a big blow to Whitehead, who has Super Rugby final experience after playing wing for the Stormers in the 2010 final against the Bulls at Orlando Stadium in Soweto. But it could be a bigger blow to the Sharks as a whole than people may realise as his non-availability means that Plumtree is going to have to choose his third different midfield combination in as many weeks.
And it is not as if the midfield is not an area already under pressure as they come up in this grand finale against a Chiefs team that includes the most innovative No 12 on the planet in the form of Sonny Bill Williams.
Plumtree does have Paul Jordaan back in the mix after he was cleared to travel with the squad, and Patrick Lambie is also fit again and does have experience of inside centre. He already faces a tough decision in that JP Pietersen did well at outside centre against the Stormers after being included there unannounced in an attempt to add length to the back three kicking game by playing Riaan Viljoen at fullback.
That move worked against the Stormers, with the home team’s kicking game being effectively blunted, but the Chiefs are a different challenge. The best option for Plumtree would surely have been to just bring back Jordaan, who was excellent against the Reds, as the partner to Whitehead, with Pietersen moving back to the wing and then a decision being made between Lambie and Louis Ludik in the last line of defence.
But now, unless he wants to play Lambie out of position against Williams, it looks like he might be forced to recall Meyer Bosman to the No 12 jersey. Bosman was the man left out in the Sharks’ backline reconfiguration for the Stormers game (he was in the announced team, but not in the team that ran onto the field) and you get the impression he is not someone the coaching team has a huge amount of confidence in.
And if that is the case, it is not without reason, for while he has improved this season, the memory still throws up images of Williams brushing off Bosman in the Crusaders’ rout of the Sharks in London last year, as well as of Jean de Villiers running over him when the Stormers thumped the Sharks 32-12 in a Super Rugby league game last April.
But while there is plenty to occupy Plumtree’s mind, there is one thing he can be pleased about – his team has reached the deciding match of the season with just one injury (Whitehead) and otherwise a full squad to pick from.