Allegations of cultural rifts within the Sharks team might just be the spark to finally get them fired up and playing as a unit as they take on the Western Force in Perth this weekend, writes KEN BORLAND.
The Beeld newspaper ran a story this week alleging that Sharks captain Keegan Daniel believes there are too many Afrikaans-speakers in the team, with an opening paragraph that read “The Anglo-Boer War is apparently raging again in Sharks rugby”.
While the chances of Daniel actually being an Afrikaans-hater are absolutely remote – he is highly-regarded as a person and leader within the squad, which is dominated by Afrikaners – the storm the accusation has caused could provide the Sharks with the sort of rallying call they desperately need to end the five-match losing streak that has almost certainly ended the 2012 runners-up’s chances of making the playoffs.
The Sharks condemned the report, CEO Brian van Zyl saying the strength of the team has always been its diversity, while Daniel himself slammed the allegations both in the statement released by the union and on social media, where he posted photos of himself and colleagues like Jannie du Plessis, Franco van der Merwe and Pieter-Steph du Toit out and about together.
“I was shocked to hear about these allegations. I can’t believe that someone would say this about me in order to try and sell newspapers. It is an attack on my integrity, which is very disappointing, and it is most untrue.
“I have never had a problem with any person in our rugby squad. Since this report surfaced, I have had nothing but support from my team-mates of all cultures. This is a lesson that younger players in our squad can learn – when a team is struggling with form then you become an easy target,” Daniel said.
Where Daniel does need to look at himself, however, has been in terms of his own performances. Normally an inspirational figure leading from the front, Daniel has been pedestrian this season and in recent weeks the Sharks have struggled to get out of first gear and have been especially sluggish in defence.
He would seem to have the backing of his team and, if he can channel his anger into a rousing performance on the field, he could just spark a change in fortunes for the Sharks.
He will have the imposing physical presence of Willem Alberts back alongside him in the loose trio, while coach John Plumtree was no doubt mightily relieved that there were no further injuries during last weekend’s loss to the Reds in Brisbane.
He has, however, made four changes to the team with Alberts returning for Jean Deysel, Odwa Ndungane, fresh from earning his 100th SuperRugby cap off the bench, starting on the wing instead of Piet Lindeque, while tighthead prop Jannie du Plessis and lock Anton Bresler are rotated back into the tight five in place of Wiehahn Herbst and Pieter-Steph du Toit.
But whatever the changes in personnel, the Sharks must know that the unfocused, lacklustre displays they have produced so far on tour just won’t hack it against the Force in Perth.
Right now, the Force are much the better team, having lost by one point away to the Chiefs, drawing with the Reds and beating the Crusaders in recent weeks.
It’s now or never for the Sharks and if the hurt they are feeling right now doesn’t get them going on Friday, then nothing will.
The mood in the most Afrikaans franchise of the lot – the Bulls – is totally different at the moment. Fresh off a bye, they are in control of the South African Conference and playing slick, impressive rugby.
But they are up against one of the few New Zealand teams that knows how to win at Loftus Versfeld – the Highlanders, who have won four and drawn one of their last eight visits to Pretoria.
As SuperRugby nears the international break, it is teams like the Highlanders, playing with nothing to lose, who are especially dangerous as they come up against contending teams who are under pressure and have much at stake.
Playing at altitude is always a problem for overseas visitors to Loftus, but teams that don’t have a strong set-piece have a particularly tough mountain to climb. Fortunately for the Highlanders, it’s not an issue for them as rugged, experienced campaigners like Brad Thorn, Tony Woodcock, Andrew Hore and Chris King mean they have solid scrums and lineouts.
The Bulls scrum will be under particular scrutiny and coach Frans Ludeke has changed his props with Frik Kirsten and Morne Mellett starting in place of Werner Kruger and Dean Greyling.
Two of the Bulls’ most influential players this season will also celebrate milestones on Saturday: Pierre Spies, who will almost certainly be Heyneke Meyer’s Springbok eighthman now that Duane Vermeulen is out injured, will play his 100th SuperRugby game for the Bulls and, as their leading ball-carrier (87) and tackler (96) this season, will lead the forward effort.
Morne Steyn will also be the favourite to reclaim the Springboks’ number 10 jersey and, in his record 117th match for the Bulls, he will be a key figure in pinning the dangerous Highlanders in their own territory.
It is going to be a tough outing for the Bulls, however, even if the Highlanders are at the bottom of the log, and the visitors have the pace to punish Bulls’ errors in the form of scrumhalf Aaron Smith, wing Hosea Gear and fullback Ben Smith.
Pace and attacking verve are things Stormers supporters are desperately hoping will return to their team as they take on the Rebels in Melbourne on Friday.
The Stormers will be playing for their lives in terms of the competition, having lost their last two games, and injuries and a new halfback pairing might force them into playing with more sparkle.
Elton Jantjies and Louis Schreuder will be at half-back and can hopefully get the best out of what remains a top-class backline.
The injury to Vermeulen, a battering ram if ever there was one, means Nizaam Carr, more of a traditional linking eighthman, will play at the back of the scrum which suggests a more dynamic, wider approach from the Stormers on attack. The absence of Rynhardt Elstadt, with mobile hooker Deon Fourie now playing flank, merely adds to the argument.
The Rebels are a better side than they are giving credit for, however, and a swing too far in the other direction by the Stormers could be fatal against a team that would prefer an unstructured, loose affair. A focus on gaining dominance in the set-pieces and on a strong territorial kicking game will help the Stormers to a morale-boosting victory.
The Cheetahs are also facing a critical outing on Saturday as they entertain the Reds in Bloemfontein. Defeat for Naka Drotske’s men, who slipped up last weekend against the Hurricanes, could leave them nine points behind the Bulls if they win at Loftus.
Although the Cheetahs eventually only lost by five points to the Hurricanes, one has to be critical of how they tried to play the New Zealanders at their own high-tempo, ball-in-hand game.
Coach Drotske seems to have inexplicably not learnt from that lesson, however, as he has chosen a “more attacking” flyhalf in Elgar Watts in place of Burton Francis, whose boot has been a vital part of the Cheetahs’ success this season.
The Cheetahs might be guilty of believing their own press that raves about their wonderful running rugby (even though it has brought them no trophies for many years) and even Reds flyhalf Quade Cooper was busy buttering them up this week when he said he loved their exciting playing style.
Taking on the Reds and beating them at their own game (superb vision, running lines and offloads) will be a ridiculously tough task for a Cheetahs team that, as exciting as they are, simply does not have geniuses of the calibre of Cooper, Will Genia, Digby Ioane and Rod Davies.
Stormers (v Rebels, Friday 11.40am): Joe Pietersen, Gio Aplon, Juan de Jongh, Jean de Villiers, Bryan Habana, Elton Jantjies, Louis Schreuder, Nizaam Carr, Siya Kolisi, Deon Fourie, Andries Bekker, Eben Etzebeth, Pat Cilliers, Scarra Ntubeni, Steven Kitshoff. Replacements – Martin Bezuidenhout, Frans Malherbe, Gerbrandt Grobler, Don Armand, Nic Groom, Gary van Aswegen, Gerhard van den Heever.
The Sharks (v Force, Friday 1.45pm): Riaan Viljoen, Odwa Ndungane, JP Pietersen, Meyer Bosman, Lwazi Mvovo, Pat Lambie, Charl McLeod, Keegan Daniel, Willem Alberts, Marcell Coetzee, Franco van der Merwe, Anton Bresler, Jannie du Plessis, Kyle Cooper, JC Janse van Rensburg. Replacements – Monde Hadebe, Wiehahn Herbst, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Derick Minnie/Lubabalo Mtembu, Jean Deysel, Tian Meyer, Piet Lindeque.
Bulls (v Highlanders, Saturday 5.05pm): Jürgen Visser, Akona Ndungane, JJ Engelbrecht, Jan Serfontein, Lionel Mapoe, Morné Steyn, Francois Hougaard, Pierre Spies, Dewald Potgieter, Deon Stegmann, Juandré Kruger, Flip van der Merwe, Frik Kirsten, Chiliboy Ralepelle, Morné Mellett. Replacements – Callie Visagie, Werner Kruger, Grant Hattingh, Arno Botha, Jano Vermaak, Louis Fouché, Bjorn Basson.
Cheetahs (v Reds, Saturday 7.10pm): Hennie Daniller, Willie le Roux, Johann Sadie, Robert Ebersohn, Raymond Rhule, Elgar Watts, Piet van Zyl, Phillip van der Walt, Lappies Labuschagne, Heinrich Brüssow, Francois Uys, Lood de Jager, Lourens Adriaanse, Adriaan Strauss, Coenie Oosthuizen. Replacements – Ryno Barnes, Trevor Nyakane, Ligtoring Landman, Boom Prinsloo, Sarel Pretorius, Riaan Smit, Ryno Benjamin.
Other fixtures: Hurricanes v Chiefs (Friday 9.35am); Crusaders v Blues (Saturday 9.35am); Waratahs v Brumbies (Saturday 11.40am).
Bye: Southern Kings. DM
Photo: Kyle Cooper of South Africa’s Sharks is tackled during their Super 15 rugby match against Australia’s Melbourne Rebels in Durban March 23, 2013. REUTERS/Rogan Ward
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