Steyn is Sharks’ missing link

JON CARDINELLI writes that Frans Steyn lends the Sharks another dimension and they will miss his influence in the Super Rugby play-offs.

In one of the more interesting post-match interviews held on Friday, Ryan Kankowski’s flippant remark summed up the Sharks’ performances over the past few seasons. ‘We like to make things hard for ourselves,’ the No 8 quipped in describing an inconsistent 2012 campaign that may nevertheless culminate in play-off qualification.

The Sharks have lost several close matches this season, but overall they should lament a lack of consistency in terms of the implementation of their game plan. It is only in the back end of their campaign that they have started to play for territory before keeping possession and unleashing their big ball-carriers and flashy backs.

They are likely to finish the league in sixth place, which means they will travel to Australasia for their play-off match. As Kankowski intimated after the victory against the Bulls, it is not an ideal situation, and the odds will be against the Sharks once again.

The good news for the Sharks is that they should have Willem Alberts and Pat Lambie available for that play-off. The bad news is that Frans Steyn won’t be available, as he’s ineligible for the knockout rounds having not joined the Sharks prior to the 1 April cut-off.

Steyn made all the difference to the Sharks last Friday. It’s true that the collective has played a smarter tactical game in recent rounds; it’s cut down on the errors that afflicted the momentum and completed more first-time tackles. But on top of what most title-contenders would call performing the basics, the Sharks have been boosted by the skill set of Steyn. It’s Steyn that allowed them to dominate a team as physically imposing and tactically sound as the Bulls.

Coach John Plumtree lauded the contributions of Steyn after that match. It wasn’t just the booming punts or the big defensive hits, not just the surging runs nor the deft touches with ball-in-hand that set Steyn apart. His confidence and leadership was infectious, he made a clear difference to the Sharks backline that has lacked a bit of direction in 2012.

The Sharks needed to beat the Bulls last Friday, and they needed to secure the bonus point. They are still not guaranteed a play-off place, which means another big win against the Cheetahs this Saturday is non-negotiable. Plumtree will be asking his troops for more of the same, and no doubt he will be asking Steyn for another influential performance.

It will mark Steyn’s last contribution in the Super Rugby competition, and some may argue that it would be better to select a midfield combination that will start in the play-offs. Unfortunately, this is not an option.

Because of their inconsistent start to the season, the Sharks are not in a position to take such chances. They’re still trying to make up ground, and qualifying for the play-offs at this point is more important than preparing for them.

Inside centre has long been a problematic position for the Durban franchise. In 2013 and beyond, Steyn will provide them with what they’ve been missing in that channel, that is a dominant defender as well as an attacking player who can distribute as well as breach the gainline. His kicking game will also be vital.

Meyer Bosman was seen as the answer when he signed for the Sharks, but has never lived up to the hype. Indeed, the whole of South Africa is still waiting for Bosman to live up to his potential. Jake White waxed lyrical about when he selected Bosman to start for the Springboks in 2005.

Bosman may not have the swagger of Steyn, but he has a similar skill set. He’s big enough to play that dominant physical role on defence and attack, and having played much of his career at flyhalf he has the distribution and kicking game required of a modern No 12.

Steyn should start against the Cheetahs this week, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Plumtree introduced Bosman in the second half (if the game situation allows it).

It is Bosman who could play that important position in a knock-out match, and so the backline that finishes the final league game could be the combination that starts in the play-off.

Tim Whitehead is a gifted player, and while he has had some success at No 12 for both the Stormers and Sharks, it’s at No 13 where he is best utilised. He’s a better player in space and his speed (he played wing for the Stormers at one stage) is also an asset in that wider channel.

It seems likely that the Sharks will travel to Canberra next week. Given the inexperience of that Brumbies side and the fact that Plumtree’s men won the league fixture in Canberra, it is probably the most favourable overseas fixture the Sharks could have asked for.

But there’s no point getting excited about that fixture just yet. They have a game they need to win this week, which is why Steyn should start as well as Alberts and Lambie if they’re anything close to full fitness.

It’s not the time to be holding back.

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