Sharks need some mongrel
The Sharks would have returned to Durban after their defeat to the Stormers in Cape Town on Saturday feeling quite a bit wiser about what they may need to do to in order to maintain their current position on top of the South African Vodacom Super Rugby conference log.
The race for conference honours is starting to become a log-jam, with the evenness of the local teams leaving them at a disadvantage in relation to Australia, where there are only really two decent sides playing in the competition.
The next couple of weeks, when the Sharks and the Stormers both go on tour and the Vodacom Bulls start an extended home run of matches, are going to be decisive to the conference standings, and the Sharks are going to have to respond sharply to the Newlands wake-up call.
“We have five wins out of seven which is a good platform but it was still disappointing the way we lost to the Stormers,” said coach John Plumtree.
“All credit to the Stormers. They played well and they are a damn difficult team to play against at Newlands, but I was disappointed with our response to the challenges that were posed to us. We were fortunate to get away with a bonus point, and we damn nearly blew that too (a reference to a Charl Macleod decision to tap a penalty earlier).”
What was most disturbing to Plumtree was the way his big men got outplayed by a Stormers pack that arrived with a ferocious attitude but no more than should have been expected from a desperate team that needed to win to stay alive in the conference battle.
The Sharks are clearly missing their big ball-carrying forwards, and it wasn’t a coincidence that it was the Stormers’ blindside flank Michael Rhodes, a former Sharks player, who was the man of the match. The battle of the gainline is crucial in coastal derbies, and this time it was the Stormers who won hands down.
And the ease with which the Stormers were able to maul the Sharks should have sent out the message that perhaps the pack that has been selected for the past few weeks lacks a bit of weight.
That will change when Willem Alberts returns to full fitness and ditto Bismarck du Plessis, plus Jean Deysel never made it to Cape Town to sit on the bench in the end after his ankle injury flared up again, but for now the answer might be to return Anton Bresler to the starting team.
Franco van der Merwe brings lineout accuracy and expertise to the mix, but may fall short of providing the enforcer’s influence that the Sharks need.
Pieter-Steph du Toit has huge potential and is certainly a star of the future, and earned a rave review again from Plumtree after this game, but when Van der Merwe and Du Toit pack down together in the same pack, the second row may be a little light.
The Sharks are up against the Cheetahs in Durban this weekend in a must-win derby if the hosts want to stay top of the conference, and they will need to get their mix right.
The performance of the pack is going to be even more crucial for the Sharks this weekend than it normally is, for it is clear that the injury-ravaged backline is just not functioning at the moment, with fullback Frans Steyn’s form a particular point for concern.
JP Pietersen was one of only two Sharks backs that stood up to the challenge in Cape Town (scrumhalf Cobus Reinach being the other) and it was when he left the field that any chance of a Sharks win disappeared. Pietersen didn’t look good as he hobbled off and he is doubtful for Saturday’s game.
Plumtree was already struggling for players to do the job in the back three last week, explaining the somewhat surprising decision to throw the green Sean Robinson into the heat of a massive Newlands derby, so if the worst news is confirmed and Pietersen is ruled out, the Sharks could be in trouble as the Cheetahs are one of the best running teams in the competition.
There’s only one option really for the Sharks: the big men will have to step up, and they will need to step up big time.
The Newlands performance just wasn’t good enough and the same effort against the Cheetahs will deliver a similar result and enable the Bloemfontein team and probably the Bulls to leapfrog them at the top of the conference table.