Sport

SuperRugby: Sharks hoping for a miracle on Loftus

By Ken Borland 4 July 2013

The Sharks travel to Pretoria this weekend to take on the Bulls and will be hoping for something as dramatic and seismic as what the Egyptian army pulled off earlier this week as they seek to beat the South African Conference winners at their Loftus Versfeld fortress. BY KEN BORLAND.

Victory at Loftus Versfeld, where the Bulls have lost just nine times in 54 SuperRugby matches dating back to 2007, would be a tremendous coup in itself for the Sharks, who have endured their own palace revolution in recent weeks. But if they can win with a bonus point, it also creates the astonishing possibility that they could still sneak into the playoffs.

If the Cheetahs lose to the Blues in Bloemfontein, then the Sharks could well edge them out of the top six if they then beat the lowly Southern Kings in Durban in the final weekend before the playoffs and the Aucklanders lose to the log-leading Chiefs. And the Sharks will bring a formidable pack to Loftus Versfeld, with Bismarck du Plessis making his first start this season at hooker.

The Springbok powerhouse chipped in valuably in the closing stages of last weekend’s come-from-behind win over the Blues, but he has also made two impressive appearances off the bench for the Springboks since returning from major knee surgery and looks close to his unstoppable best once again.

John Plumtree’s axing as coach was not only a shocking way to treat such a stalwart of Natal rugby, but also felt like a kick in the shins for the players, who responded with a ferocious forward effort against the Blues. If the Sharks pack can bring the same intensity to Pretoria, the Bulls will certainly be in for a tough evening.

The Sharks’ scrum – boasting an all-Springbok front row this weekend – was particularly impressive and that set piece is an area where the Bulls have struggled at times this season. So coach Frans Ludeke has gone for the security of an extra prop on the bench, both Frik Kirsten and Morne Mellett backing up Werner Kruger and Dean Greyling in a 5-2 split among the substitutes.

Willem Alberts, Marcell Coetzee and replacement Jean Deysel are not far behind Du Plessis in being forces of nature and vehicles of destruction with ball in hand, so the Bulls will have to deny the Sharks momentum from front-foot ball.

While the Sharks will look to beat the Bulls at their own game, the home side have other options with which to attack the Sharks in the form of a backline that is also studded with Springboks – mostly of the up-and-coming variety.

While we can expect Morne Steyn to try and pin the Sharks – who have said they are aiming to score four tries – in their own half and cause them to make mistakes, the Bulls also have runners to break the defensive line in Francois Hougaard, JJ Engelbrecht, Jan Serfontein and replacement scrumhalf Jano Vermaak, who is likely to return to action off the bench after a hamstring injury contrived to cut short his highly promising Springbok debut.

The Sharks will look to Pat Lambie, playing his 50th SuperRugby match, and veteran Butch James to marshal an injury-ravaged backline that needs to be clinical in defence as much as attack on Saturday night.

Being able to defend clinically is also something the Cheetahs will require if they are to keep their playoff hopes alive against the hard-running Blues, who are also chasing a spot in the top six.

The Aucklanders showed in the match against the Sharks that they are lethal when presented with the opportunity to attack from turnover ball and the game plan and kicking of the Cheetahs has to be a lot more precisely executed than it was in the dismal loss to the Stormers last weekend.

The set piece will surely be the starting point of attack for the Cheetahs and they stated their intentions this week with a series of gruelling scrummaging sessions under the watchful eye of legendary Springbok loose-head Os du Randt.

However, the Cheetahs might be forced to go into their most important game in eight years with three telling injury blows as key players Hennie Daniller (fullback), Coenie Oosthuizen (prop) and Piet van Zyl (scrumhalf) are all facing late fitness tests today {Friday}.

The Stormers travel to Port Elizabeth and if they beat the Southern Kings with a bonus point and the Cheetahs lose, then they will also be back in the running for a playoff spot as they are level with the Sharks on 42 points, four behind the central franchise who are, however, guaranteed another four points from a bye in the final week.

The 2012 South African Conference winners will travel to the Eastern Cape with much the same side that impressed in hammering the Cheetahs last weekend.

But they are away from the sanctuary of Newlands on Saturday and the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium has an atmosphere that really rocks, with the Kings desperate to beat a South African team for the first time in their last home game.

The Kings will come out firing and will surely play better than they did last weekend in Pretoria, and will certainly put up a sterner defensive effort against their neighbours.

The Stormers have lost flank Siya Kolisi with torn ankle ligaments, and will surely miss the tremendous work rate and defensive steel he brought to the team last week and for the Springboks before that. Don Armand replaces him and Rynhardt Elstadt, strong and combative, returns from injury to the bench.

That is the only change coach Allister Coetzee has made to the starting line-up, with prop Pat Cilliers and scrumhalf Nic Groom also returning to the bench.

The continuity is justified because the Stormers really fired last weekend, making it very difficult for the Cheetahs to get into the game. If they can bring that same defensive pressure and the awkward bombs from fullback Joe Pietersen to bear against the Kings, the new boys could sign off at home with a whimper rather than a bang.

Teams

Cheetahs (v Blues, Saturday 14:50): Hennie Daniller, Willie le Roux, Johann Sadie, Robert Ebersohn, Raymond Rhule, Riaan Smit, Piet van Zyl, Philip van der Walt, Lappies Labuschagné, Heinrich Brüssow, Ligtoring Landman, Lood de Jager, Lourens Adriaanse, Adriaan Strauss, Coenie Oosthuizen. Replacements – Ryno Barnes, Trevor Nyakane, Waltie Vermeulen, Boom Prinsloo, Sarel Pretorius, Elgar Watts, Ryno Benjamin.

Southern Kings (v Stormers, Saturday 17:05): SP Marais, Michael Killian, Ronnie Cooke, Andries Strauss, Marcello Sampson, Demetri Catrakilis, Shaun Venter, Jacques Engelbrecht, Wimpie van der Walt, Cornell du Preez, Darron Nell, David Bulbring, Grant Kemp, Bandise Maku, Schalk Ferreira. Replacements – Charl du Plessis, Hannes Franklin, Steven Sykes, Devin Oosthuizen, Nicolas Vergallo, George Whitehead, Shane Gates.

Stormers (v Southern Kings, Saturday 17:05): Joe Pietersen, Gio Aplon, Juan de Jongh, Damian de Allende, Bryan Habana, Elton Jantjies, Louis Schreuder, Nizaam Carr, Deon Fourie, Don Armand, De Kock Steenkamp, Eben Etzebeth, Brok Harris, Scarra Ntubeni, Steven Kitshoff. Replacements – Martin Bezuidenhout, Pat Cilliers, Gerbrandt Grobler, Rynhardt Elstadt, Nic Groom, Gary van Aswegen, Gerhard van den Heever.

Bulls (v Sharks, Saturday 19:15): Zane Kirchner, Akona Ndungane, JJ Engelbrecht, Jan Serfontein, Bjorn Basson, Morné Steyn, Francois Hougaard, Dewald Potgieter, Jacques Potgieter, Deon Stegmann, Grant Hattingh, Flip van der Merwe, Werner Kruger, Chiliboy Ralepelle, Dean Greyling. Replacements – Callie Visagie, Frik Kirsten, Wilhelm Steenkamp, Jono Ross, Francois Hougaard, Jürgen Visser, Morné Mellett.

The Sharks (v Bulls, Saturday 19:15): Riaan Viljoen, Odwa Ndungane, Louis Ludik, Butch James, Lwazi Mvovo, Pat Lambie, Charl McLeod, Keegan Daniel, Willem Alberts, Marcell Coetzee, Franco van der Merwe, Edwin Hewitt, Jannie du Plessis, Bismarck du Plessis, Tendai Mtawarira. Replacements – Kyle Cooper, Wiehahn Herbst, Jandré Marais, Jean Deysel, Jacques Botes, Cobus Reinach, Jaco van Tonder.

Other fixtures: Crusaders v Chiefs (Friday 9:35); Hurricanes v Highlanders (Saturday 9:35).

Photo: Patrick Lambie of South Africa’s Sharks scores against New Zealand’s Highlanders during their Super 15 rugby match in Durban May 5, 2012. REUTERS/Rogan Ward

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