EURO CHAMPIONS CUP
Sharks, Stormers and Lions take travel problems in their stride for European quarters
The Sharks and the Stormers have both had their share of travel hiccups on their way to Europe to face Toulouse and Exeter respectively, but travel travails are all relative.
A few years ago, away quarterfinals for the Sharks and Stormers usually meant long-haul flights to Sydney, Christchurch and Hamilton. As hardships go, arriving late in Toulouse is minor compared to preparing to face the Crusaders jet-lagged to the gills.
The Sharks’ and Stormers’ travel schedules were apparently messy this week, with the squads set to make their way north in various groups — economy class — and via the Middle East.
The South African Rugby Union has to pick up the bill for flights and some hotel accommodation in the European Champions and Challenge Cups, and in these austere times, the cost-cutting means stopovers in Doha, or Dubai and cramped seats for hulking players.
It’s not ideal but based on previous conversations with players towards the end of Super Rugby, many of them would’ve sat on the back of a bakkie through Africa to get to Paris, rather than cross nine time zones to New Zealand for a one-off match.
The Sharks face Toulouse in the rugby-mad city at Stade Ernest Wallon at 4pm on Saturday and head into the contest as underdogs despite their excellent 50-35 destruction of Munster in the last-16 encounter.
There will be a minute’s silence before kick-off as a mark of respect for former Sharks and Bok coach Ian McIntosh, who died earlier this week, and the Sharks will wear black armbands.
Toulouse were clinical, although not exceptional, as they took a struggling Bulls apart by 33-9. The French giants never really needed to go past third gear and they were not put under any meaningful pressure in the match. The Sharks will have to find ways to ask tough questions of the Toulouse halfbacks Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack if they are to have any chance in the match.
And they’ll have to ask those questions without the Bok duo of lock Eben Etzebeth and scrumhalf Jaden Hendrikse, who both suffered shoulder injuries against Munster. Etzebeth’s injury is not as serious, but Hendrikse could be out for three months after undergoing surgery last Sunday. Losing two excellent players makes life harder.
The Sharks are also without lock Emile van Heerden, who was another shoulder injury victim against Munster, meaning flank Vincent Tshituka is likely to move into the second row to partner Gerbrandt Grobler.
Luckily in Grant Williams, the Sharks have a Springbok scrumhalf and while he and Hendrikse offer different strengths, Williams’ dynamic style of play might just be the right fit to face the supreme Dupont.
Otherwise, the team looks well-settled. Last week the backline was cutting with Makazole Mapimpi, Lukhanyo Am, Werner Kok and Curwin Bosch working on the same wavelength. There is a lot to be optimistic about, but if the Sharks have been one thing this season, it’s inconsistent.
Can they string consecutive strong performances together when it really matters?
“It won’t be easy and we all know that when you get to the knockout stages, you have to be a lot more accurate,” Sharks director of rugby Neil Powell said. “There is little room for mistakes and if you do make any, the opposition will punish you for that.”
Unusually, the Stormers will arrive at Sandy Park in Exeter as favourites against the former English Premiership champions.
The Stormers were superb in beating Harlequins 32-28 in their round of 16 clash at DHL Stadium last weekend despite the misleading final score.
The Stormers led 32-7 after 76 minutes and dropped into a deep slumber for the final six minutes of playing time which allowed Harlequins to restore some respectability to the outcome.
But the reigning United Rugby Championships champions are in fine form, although Sandy Park is a long way from their Green Point fortress where they have won 21 matches on the trot.
Assistant coach Norman Laker played down the toil of the travel schedule after the team arrived in Exeter on Wednesday, a day later than hoped.
“We wanted to leave on Monday, early Monday evening,” Laker told the media. “I don’t think there were flights, I am not 100% sure, I can’t give you the specifics. Then it came through that we are leaving in three groups on Tuesday morning, but it was spread out. Our flight had a technical error. The group that myself and Ruhan were in changed airlines.
“We left yesterday morning in three groups. Some guys travelled via Doha and some through Dubai. We all landed earlier this morning in London and took the bus, around a three-hour trip, to Exeter.
“It was a little disruptive, but we aren’t going to hammer on about it or let it get in our way of performing on Saturday. A lot of credit also has to be given to our manager, Chippie Solomon.
“The guys are doing some massages and recovery this afternoon. We will have a late training session on Thursday, on Friday we will have our captain’s run and on Saturday we will play.
“We are looking forward to the match and we aren’t bothered about the travel.”
Centre Ruhan Nel explained that disruptions might not be such a bad thing.
“Most of us have played long enough to know how to tackle these challenges. Everyone was sitting with a cellphone or a laptop, going through the plans for this weekend and looking through those extras,” said Nel.
“Sometimes you get weeks where you will have a session or two fewer and it’s actually a good thing. You keep mentally sharp, because it forces you to spend a bit of time behind the computer screen.
“It’s not something we are worried about for this weekend’s game. Sometimes, after a long travel, a bit less time on the field is actually a good thing for the guys. So, I wouldn’t say that it’s something that we are focused on.”
Lions in Glasgow
The Lions face Franco Smith’s Glasgow at Scotstoun Stadium at 8pm on Saturday in the Challenge Cup quarterfinals. The Joburg team have won their last four matches in a row and seem to be finding peak form at the right time.
After a string of losses and off-field problems, the team are back on track.
“We just kept the main thing as the main thing, which was to play rugby as players and for the coaches to coach,” scrumhalf Sanele Nohamba said.
“That was the emphasis. The people behind closed doors would sort out whatever was happening.
“Our main point was to focus on performing and the rest of it would fall into place.” DM