Heavyweights in Durban duel

Like their first meeting in July, tomorrow’s Absa Currie Cup match between the Sharks and Bulls will be a typically abrasive battle dominated by the forwards.

But while the forwards union will pull rank in the vital clash, to limit either side to the ten behemoths would be foolish. Three key battles will define the encounter. Keo.co.za examines those, as well as the results from the last ten games between the teams.

BACKROW BATTLE

The teams boast two complete contrasts of styles in their loose trios. In AJ Venter, Jacques Botes and Warren Britz, the Sharks have a triumvirate that have made dominating at the breakdown a science this season. Their true value though is their versatility. All three are accomplished ball carriers and will provide the impetus their side needs to get the go forward ball they so thrive on.

The Bulls loosies are an untested combination but this will not mean they’ll be disadvantaged. In Pedrie Wannenburg, Hilton Lobberts and Pierre Spies they possess perhaps the most dangerous ball carrying trio in the Currie Cup. Lobberts was ruthlessly effective with ball in hand at Newlands three weeks ago, while both Wannenburg and Spies were mercurial during the Tri-Nations.

The key for the Sharks would be to nullify them by making sure their space to run is kept to an absolute minimum. It’ll be no surprise to see any one of the three running off Hougaard’s shoulder at set pieces and attacking the channel between the scrum/lineout and the flyhalf in an attempt to keep the ball close to the pack and suck in defenders before sending it wide.

The Sharks will be able to mount a sustainable challenge for 80 minutes in this area because of the quality on their bench. In Solly Tyibilika and Ryan Kankowski the Durban-based side will lose little should Muir decide to pry any of the trio from the cauldron of the Absa Stadium.

10-12 AXIS

Both sides sport changes to their flyhalf/inside centre channel. Butch James returns from Springbok duty for the Sharks and will have the hard running Bradley Barritt casting a shadow on his shoulder. The Bulls welcome back Springbok, Wynand Olivier, whose ability to hit the channel between the flyhalf and inside centre would’ve had Dick Muir sounding a caution to James and Barritt.

But for all his early season promise, Olivier has been average at best when swapping the the light blue jumper for the green and gold version. There’s a school of thought that suggests he is more dangerous when the more attack-minded Morné Steyn runs at flyhalf, and with both James and Barritt famed for the uncompromising defence, Hougaard will has to commit one or both of them if he doesn’t want to sacrifice Olivier.

Derrick Hougaard’s usually reliable, general and goal kicking has let him down in recent games, and he’ll be aware that the Sharks back three need no invitation to counterattack if his punts are unsuccessful. If they spark though, they will be the catalyst for a Bulls backline that is grossly underestimated.

Barritt and James are a promising duo and represent touch of contemporary thinking by Muir. All Black coach Graham Henry is a strong advocate for playing an inside centre with the same skills set as his flyhalf. In Barritt the Sharks have that. While he cannot claim to be the complete No 10, his aptitude for the role has been tested in the Vodacom Super 14 and the Absa Currie Cup. The combination will look to confirm the perceived defensive frailties of their opposite numbers with their direct approach, but possess enough skill with ball in hand to make them dangerously unpredictable.

James’ tactical kicking has improved under the tutelage of Wallaby legend David Campese, and his boot will be a key attacking weapon, especially if the Currie Cup’s second best defense prove impenetrable early on.

BOOT CAMP

The Sharks won the first round fixture 37-28, but they should’ve been out of sight, long before a late Keegan Daniel try consigned the Bulls to their second consecutive home defeat had Ruan Pienaar been more accurate with his goal-kicking. His erratic form with the boot cost his team 13 potential points, as three missed penalties and two missed conversions kept the scores closer than they ever should’ve been. Pienaar told Keo.co.za earlier this week that James would take over the kicking duties in Durban, but that does little to hide the fact that goal kicking has been an area of concern for the Sharks.

The Bulls have opted to bench Morné Steyn, the tournaments third highest points scorer (105 points) but lose very little in the prolific boot of Hougaard.

In a game that could be decided by a small points differential, James will have to be deadly accurate.

HISTORY

In the last 10 Absa Currie Cup games the teams have been closely matched with the Bulls winning five and the Sharks winning four with one draw. Interestingly, only four of those ten games have been won by more than five points.

Head to head record in the last 10 Currie Cup games

2006: Sharks won 38 – 27 (Loftus)
2005: Sharks won 14-18 (Loftus)
2004: Bulls won 27 -23 (Absa Stadium)
2004: Bulls won 41 -27 (Loftus)
2003: Sharks won 28 – 23 (Absa Stadium)
2003: Bulls won 20 – 15 (Loftus)
2003: Bulls won 40 – 19 (Loftus – Final)
2002: Draw 17 – 17 (Loftus)
2002: Bulls won 22 – 19 (Durban – Semi-final)
2001: Sharks won 24 – 17 (Loftus)

By Ryan Vrede