RYAN VREDE hopes the Sharks’ forwards defy physical expectations and rouse themselves for their biggest challenge yet.
Brisbane-Durban-Cape Town-Durban-Sydney-Hamilton. Three weeks. Three demanding teams with an ultra-confident host to come. What have these Sharks got left? Have they depleted the reserves that accounted for an inspirational semi-final victory over the Stormers, the most brutal of opponents?
Now the Chiefs await. Galvanised by their unrelenting forwards, who elevated their play against a Crusaders pack laden with All Blacks, the Chiefs out-muscled their rivals in Friday’s derby. There were widespread lamentations about Dan Carter’s performance, the Saders’ fulcrum delivering one of his weakest showings in Super Rugby history. In a game of cause and effect, most assessments of Carter’s performance were lacking in appreciation for the Chiefs’ industry and guile in limiting his space and time. Robbed of a platform, Carter was made mortal.
Conversely, his counterpart, Aaron Cruden, thrived, certainly for the first 40 minutes, whereafter the Chiefs’ defensive aptitude was more sternly tested. Furthermore, the discipline with which they fronted amplified their challenge.
There are no superstars in the Chiefs’ pack, but at their best their synergy is incredible. Their potency in the ground-and-pound has been the bedrock upon which their success this season has been built. They’ve also rotated often throughout their campaign, accounting for their ability to sustain their defensive and attacking drive. This is the backdrop against which the Sharks’ primary on-field challenge plays out.
I had backed the Stormers to win on Saturday on the basis of a hectic travel schedule surely undermining the Sharks forwards’ efforts. When Eben Etzebeth transported Bismarck du Plessis to a parallel universe with a charge so forceful, so utterly dismissive of the Springbok Hercules, my belief was fuelled. I thought that moment was a reflection of the Stormers’ collective ethos. Instead it turned out to be a rare wow moment that was an insight into Etzebeth’s strength, mentality and desire – qualities his team-mates in jerseys No 1 through No 8 didn’t display in the measure of consistency they needed to.
However, to discount the Sharks’ role in the rudderless Stormers’ struggles would be remiss. It wasn’t uncharted territory for them. They had stifled them in their previous meetings. But viewed in the context of their extensive travel this was an effort nothing short of heroic.
The legitimate concern now is that, having left a part of themselves on the Newlands turf, the big boys will be spent. Willem Alberts and Beast Mtawarira are exceptions. Both have had their campaign curtailed by injuries. Their outstanding form is consistent with elite players who are building to a peak. The Sharks can draw confidence from this. Not so from the physical condition of Bismarck du Plessis, Marcell Coetzee, Jannie du Plessis and Keegan Daniel, most of whom have played in the bulk of their games and some whom have been involved with the Springboks.
That these men front will be decisive to the outcome, particularly in light of the Chiefs backs’ dynamism when allowed to engineer their opponent’s demise. If they do it will be a testament to their bulletproof minds and globe-sized hearts.