AJ’s got the formula

“Do the basics right” is AJ Venter’s mantra ahead of the Sharks’ impending semi-final against the Vodacom Cheetahs.

The 33-year-old has been sidelined for the season with a knee injury but was decisive in his opinion of what would see the Sharks triumph in Bloemfontein.

“We were excellent in the first-half in our game against the Valke [on Saturday] and then in the second [half] I thought we tried to score too many tries,” he told Keo.co.za. “We didn’t do the basics and that meant we lost our structure.

“If we were playing any of the bigger teams there is no way that would’ve happened and against the Cheetahs we have to get our execution of the basics right.”

The Sharks romped to a 36-3 half-time lead but added only twelve points after the break. Venter though said he was convinced that they would be far more focussed come Saturday.

“The league stage is over now and this is a once-off opportunity to make the final.
I have no doubt that we’ll be on top of our game because there really is no other option. If we lose we’re out, while a victory means a Currie Cup final spot.”

Venter’s assessment of what will be required of the Sharks to beat the defending champions might be deadly accurate.

When the Sharks hosted the Cheetahs in their first-round encounter, the visitors capitalised on the errors of an overzealous backline and lost 31-9.

Sharks captain Warren Britz and skills coach David Campese have both criticised the Cheetahs recently, with the former calling them “predictable” while the latter said they were ” simply a defensive team, who rely on kicking goals to win matches.”

While those assessments are open to debate, Venter predicts that the Cheetahs tactics will mimic those they employed a fortnight ago.

“That was a really tactical game with lots of kicking and I think they’ll probably kick the ball at us again and attempt to make us make the play,” he said.

“We’ve learnt valuable lessons from our last game against them, and we know we’ll have to improve in certain areas.”

One of those areas to which he refers is surely their defence of the driving mauls. The Sharks conceded three tries to a marauding Cheetahs pack in the 37-35 defeat two weeks ago and Venter said that they would have to remedy this to avoid being targeted in this facet of play.

“We’ve worked hard on both our contesting of the driving and it’s utilisation as an attacking weapon. Both are something that we’ve always prided ourselves on and for most of the season they were two of our biggest strengths,” he explained.

“Recently our mauls haven’t been great but we’ll have to be dominant in this phase of play against the Cheetahs, because they can really hurt you if you’re not up to the task.”

Many pundits have attributed the Sharks’ defensive vulnerabilty in the mauls to Venters absence but he rejects this suggestion.

“There are so many good players in our pack, that to say that would be ridiculous. Johan Müller for example, is an unbelievable leader and a great player. They don’t miss me.”

While he said that watching from the sidelines has been frustrating he said it’s given him a new perspective on the game.

“Even going to the games is hard. If I had a choice I would stay at home,” he said, the frustration evident in his voice.

“But tactically you learn a lot about the game from the sidelines and get insights that you wouldn’t get while involved in the match. Hopefully I can pass some of those [insights] on to the team and contribute in a small way.”

Venter underwent knee surgery on Wednesday and has made remarkable progress since – discarding his crutches by Friday. The initial prognosis was that he would return for the 2007 Super 14 but he said that it looks like he’ll be back in training sooner than expected.

By Ryan Vrede