RYAN VREDE writes the decisive Sharks-Bulls match in Durban will be shaped by the potency of their strike runners.
Of course the physical challenges are amplified in South African derbies and of course the gainline battle is almost always decisive to the outcome of the match. But in Friday’s showdown, one of both sides must win – the Bulls to keep themselves in contention for the South African conference title and the Sharks to stay in the hunt for a play-off place – this facet of play takes on added significance.
And neither side lacks ammunition for this particular battle. The Bulls, however, have been inconsistent in this regard. When matched physically, as they have been more than they were accustomed to during their period of dominance in Super Rugby, they have looked decidedly ordinary. The Sharks fared well in this regard at Loftus in their first meeting, restricting their strike runners and in doing so aiding their defensive task considerably. The Bulls – who have averaged just over three tries a match – were denied one in the 18-13 win, Morné Steyn kicking five penalties and a drop-goal.
The Bulls rely heavily on momentum generated from gainline dominance for their game plan to run smoothly. They will be looking to the likes of Jacques Potgieter – industrious and abrasive once more against the Cheetahs at the weekend – Pierre Spies, who continues to be dogged by accusations of performing disappearing acts when the game is tight (as this one is sure to be) and their front row of Dean Greyling, Werner Kruger and Chiliboy Ralepelle to lay the platform. In the back division, Wynand Olivier’s direct running in the early phases will be depended on for them to create vulnerabilities in the Sharks’ defensive line.
The Sharks have been inconsistent defensively, leaking against inferior opponents (the Lions a prime example) and impressing against the likes of the Bulls, Stormers and Chiefs. They last played on 2 June, and while such a break would have had a restorative effect on weary bodies and minds, their defensive synergy could be compromised. The same can be said for their attacking cohesion. The key feature of this past weekend’s matches was undoubtedly the lack of attacking cohesion the sides had after an extended break. The Bulls are advantaged by having scraped off the rust and the Sharks will required their key ball carriers to ease their attacking task by ensuring they win the tackle fights.
Central to their success will be the showing of Willem Alberts. The blindside flanker was influential in the Springboks’ series victory over England recently, carrying strongly and eliciting high praise from coach Heyneke Meyer. He missed the third Test in Port Elizabeth through an injury he is still nursing. A call will be made on his availability later this week. John Plumtree will have skinless knees this week, pleading with the rugby gods for diving intervention for his demolition man.
Bismarck du Plessis was quiet by his usually high standards in this fixture at Loftus, but grew in prominence as the tournament progressed and will have to impose himself on his home patch. Du Plessis’ front row partner Beast Mtawarira lifts himself for these types of challenges and his dynamism with ball in hand has been at the heart of the Sharks’ resurgence. Ryan Kankowski needs a big game and his pace and athleticism must be accompanied by grunt and a willingness to mix it at close quarters. Keegan Daniel has consistently produced performances that have belied his physical constitution, and when he is burning white hot, the Sharks usually follow his lead.