Sharks missing heavy hitters

JON CARDINELLI writes the Sharks missed the physicality of Willem Alberts and Jean Deysel at Loftus Versfeld and may be similarly exposed when they visit Newlands for another brutal derby this Saturday.

The Sharks were patently undercooked going into last week’s clash. Tougher pre-season matches against some of the incumbent Super Rugby entities rather than comparatively lighter hit-outs against Boland and the Kings would have served as better preparation.

The lack of match hardness was all too apparent when they took on a fiery Bulls side at Loftus Versfeld, a team that had a point to prove after losing forwards like Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha, Danie Rossouw, Gary Botha and Gürthro Steenkamp to overseas deals and retirement, as well as Dewald Potgieter to a freak accident. The young Bulls forwards dominated the Sharks at the lineouts, breakdowns and collisions, and on the back of that forward dominance, Morné Steyn did what he does best, that is kick his team into good field positions.

Sharks fans will take aim at referee Jonathan Kaplan, but to the neutral it appeared as if the Sharks weren’t nearly as accurate as their Bulls counterparts at the ruck. The referees have been ordered to be strict on attacking players going off their feet or sealing off at the breakdown, and in this respect, the Sharks failed to show the necessary discipline. The penalties against the Durban side served to stall their attacking momentum, although it has to be said they were already battling to live with an inexperienced yet abrasive Bulls side at the gain line.

Marcell Coetzee was a standout for the Sharks, but loose-trio partners Keegan Daniel and Ryan Kankowski struggled to get into the game. Bismarck du Plessis didn’t delver his most disciplined showing and again this could be put down in part to a lack of game time against top-notch opposition. There was also more than one occasion where he was smashed back in the tackle by a younger, more determined Bulls player. At these moments, his look of surprise confirmed the Sharks went into this game without the necessary preparation.

They would have been expected to dominate a Bulls side that had suffered such significant losses in the off-season. It’s true that a lineout unit including Flip van der Merwe, Juandre Kruger and Pierre Spies was always going to trouble the Sharks, but at the collisions, the more settled Durban team would have been favoured. As things transpired, the Sharks struggled to make an impression on the Bulls defence. Their errant approach to the ruck resulted in many a momentum-costing penalty, but in most instances the Sharks simply failed to get across the gain line.

Alberts proved such a crucial player for the Sharks in 2011, but perhaps the team has become too reliant on his superhuman efforts. Like most sides in this competition, the Sharks are most dangerous when their pack is going forward, and ball-carriers like Alberts have shouldered much of the ground-gaining responsibilities in recent times. Without Alberts, the Sharks have to find somebody similarly powerful and direct if more gifted ball-in-hand players like Kankowski and Daniel are going to penetrate defences in later phases.

Neither Alberts nor another hard-nosed player in Deysel will be available this week, and so Plumtree may rely on a similar forward line-up for the game against the Stormers. The Cape side has lost its captain and one of its primary ball-carriers in Schalk Burger, a player who comes to the fore in these typically physical derby games. What the Stormers do have in reserve is talented youngsters like Siya Kolisi who have been in the system for awhile, as well as established players like Duane Vermeulen, who boasts a reputation for knocking players back in the tackle and making metres with ball in hand. In this respect, the Stormers will also be boosted by the return of No 4 lock Rynhardt Elstadt.

The Stormers also have the better lineout. What they don’t have in their pack is an experienced figure who can play to the ball.

Perhaps this is where the Sharks may look to unsettle the Cape side. They will still need to lift their efforts at the gain line, but in Daniel and Du Plessis they have some highly effective players on the ground. If they are going to continue to go the direct route, especially against a defence as solid as that of the Stormers, they may be in for more disappointment. But if they can match the Cape side at the collisions, and then disrupt the Stormers with their fetching expertise, a win at Newlands may be on the cards.

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