We’re better equipped this year - Plumtree
The Sharks peaked at the right time last year but had left themselves too much to do because of earlier failures in the league phase of Super Rugby, so it’s no surprise that coach John Plumtree is targeting the conference games for a big effort this season.
The time spent in the air during the three weeks of the play-offs eventually bit the Sharks when they played the Chiefs in Hamilton in the 2012 final.
Plumtree knows that, and it’s why the opening sequence of derbies is going to be of crucial importance to his team’s challenge.
Wins over the Cheetahs this coming weekend and then against the Stormers could prevent them from chasing the game in the conference battle as they have in recent seasons.
In both 2011 and 2012 the Sharks found themselves on a final footing from around the halfway mark as they couldn’t afford to lose any more matches.
It is a situation the players tend to respond well to, but the Sharks' management know greater consistency over the competition is the key to ending the Stormers’ stranglehold on the South African conference trophy.
“What we learned last year is that you need to get off to a good start and maintain some momentum through the competition to avoid the travel factor at the end,” said Plumtree at a press conference in Durban on Tuesday.
“The Stormers have won the conference in the last couple of years and that’s definitely the easiest route to the final. This is a conference game at the weekend and we have placed a huge emphasis on the conference games this year. We want to win every match we play, though we know that is hard in Super Rugby.
“These conference games are hugely important, and I am sure all the South African franchises are talking about that.”
Plumtree has yet to name the team to play the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein, but Springbok flanker Marcell Coetzee has been passed fit to play.
Most of the team appears to pick itself, though Plumtree gave a hint at which way the selections have gone by saying that the importance of the opening game had prompted a stress on experience, particularly in the tight five.
That should mean that all the Springboks available to the forward unit will start, although there is still some debate over whether Plumtree will be prepared to start with Ryan Kankowski when he hasn’t played any rugby since returning from Japan.
Lubalalo Mthembu has played well at No 8 in the warm-up games and could well wear that number on his back, with Kankowski being introduced off the bench.
“The way the Cheetahs play influenced a lot of the selections, they have a lot of speed and genuine threats in their backline,” said Plumtree.
“We’ve picked a side that has the most experience for the occasion. Scrumhalf was a horses for courses selection in terms of the strengths I require for the day.”
The players competing for the No 9 jersey are Charl McLeod and Cobus Reinach, with the latter being one of the young Sharks players who made a statement in last year’s Currie Cup.
He did not have a great final though, so it will be interesting to see if that might count against him, and ditto for Craig Burden, who had a nightmare game at the lineouts in the domestic decider against Western Province.
In Burden’s case he will probably start the season as the front-ranked hooker stand-in for the indisposed Bismarck du Plessis ahead of the challenge of Kyle Cooper, but with Reinach and McLeod the choice is less clear-cut.
One headache that Plumtree is pleased not to have this year is the one surrounding the midfield.
Although Meyer Bosman was lured to Durban from the Cheetahs a few years ago, he has never quite provided the hoped-for solution to a midfield problem that developed with the departure of a few star players, and another Springbok, Marius Joubert, arrived a bit late in his career to make a big impact.
One of those star players is back, however, and Plumtree is confident that Frans Steyn, now that he has matured enough to even slot in as the team captain, will make all the difference.
“We’re lucky this year in that we have Frans back in the midfield to help Pat Lambie out. He’s a big presence and he can get across the advantage line. He’s a running threat and he also has a strong kicking game. If you look at the side, the midfield is probably a bit more balanced compared to a couple of years ago, when we really struggled in that position. Now we have depth.
“I think all round we are better equipped, the side has some nice experience. There are players up front who have matured. Ryan Kankowski is now a 70 or 80-game veteran of Super Rugby, and we have a lot of players like that in our side. Charl McLeod has also played a lot of rugby at No 9.”