RYAN VREDE writes the Sharks are one of the few sides that exhibit the capacity to ask telling questions of the Stormers.
The magnitude of the occasion and the odds the Sharks overcame undoubtedly made their victory over the Reds at the weekend the best of their campaign. However, their path to the quarter-final was marked by some excellent showings, none more so than the 25-20 defeat of the Stormers at Kings Park in May.
The scoreline suggests a close encounter, but the Sharks were completely dominant for much of it, with the most notable feature of the performance the sustained accuracy in execution of key aspects of their game plan. Few sides have been able to trouble the Stormers defensively in the manner the Sharks did, and only the Rebels have also scored three tries against the Cape side in their league-phase matches.
The potency of their attack then will be a source of inspiration ahead of Saturday’s semi-final. Their launch platform was established through an industrious and physical gainline onslaught. Willem Alberts was prominent and effective with ball in hand, named Man of the Match for his unfailing ability to get over the advantage line. Their charge in this regard was amplified by the efforts of Bismarck du Plessis, Beast Mtawarira and Marcell Coetzee, among others.
Of particular interest will be to see whether Alberts is restored to the back row after the Sharks were forced to deploy him at lock in Brisbane. He excelled in the position in the aforementioned match and the one many respected rugby men, including Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer, feel he is best suited to. The Sharks, however, may be reluctant to tamper with their back row after the trio’s showing against the Reds. But with the Stormers demanding a more direct approach than the one they implemented against the Reds, Alberts may well be named at blindside flank, with either Coetzee or Ryan Kankowski dropping to the bench.
The Sharks’ excellence in the Durban showdown extended to their defensive resolve and, most pertinently, their discipline in that facet of play. The Stormers have engineered their ascent to the semi-finals primarily through pressure-creating phase play, with their goal-kickers then building their lead through penalties from the infringements they’ve forced. The Sharks cut them off at the source and indeed also managed to restrict them in the first meeting at Newlands, won 15-12 by the Stormers thanks to a 78th minute Peter Grant penalty.
Taxing travel and their almighty physical effort against the Reds means fatigue will be the Sharks’ biggest obstacle in their bid to replicate their success against the Stormers. There is no question they have the personnel and tactical intelligence. Whether they can rouse themselves to recapture the elements that facilitated their previous victory remains to be seen.