URC CRUCIAL ENCOUNTERS
Bok star Lukhanyo Am returns for Sharks in must-win game for Durban side
South Africa’s leading United Rugby Championship sides have battles of varying importance and difficulty coming up this weekend with the Sharks desperate to turn things around.
Centre Lukhanyo Am will play his first competitive game since sustaining a knee injury against Argentina in Buenos Aires on 5 August, when he runs out for the Sharks against Connacht on Saturday.
Am’s injury initially ruled him out of Rugby World Cup 2023 in France, but he returned to the Bok squad for the latter stages of the tournament. Am never played a match though, as the Boks went on to retain their title.
Although all members of the victorious squad are on a break, SA Rugby released Am to the Sharks early as he has not played any rugby for three months.
The Sharks play their first home game of the 2023/24 United Rugby Championship (URC) campaign this weekend after four defeats on the road. Saying it’s a must-win game for John Plumtree’s side is like saying South Africans enjoy a braai. But, it’s a must-win game.
Losses to Munster, Leinster, Ospreys and Parma Zebre have already heaped some pressure on Plumtree in his second stint as Sharks head coach. This weekend offers a chance to see some growth of a new gameplan the Sharks are trying to implement while they try to hold the fort until their platoon of Springbok World Cup winners returns.
“At times we played some really good rugby,” Plumtree said this week.
“We were pretty happy with some of our rugby and the growth of our game. We’re trying to play more rugby — our ball in play time and the number of passes we’re completing have gone up — but we’re actually making more mistakes mainly because the skill set of some of the players we have aren’t good enough.
“With the game that we’re trying to play, by the 50th or 55th-minute mark we’re struggling from a fitness perspective because the players aren’t used to playing with the intensity I’d like them to. That’s again part of the brief of our game and we also have to be able to have an impact off the bench.”
Director of Rugby Neil Powell, who has been in the job for close to a year, revealed that he found a system that needed an overhaul.
“There was a lot of mediocrity in the way we did a lot of things, especially on the field,” Powell said this week.
“With Plum coming in, and my background from a Sevens perspective, we started asking better questions and more from the players in terms of what we expect from them, not just from a playing perspective, but also from a training perspective and how professional they are off the field.”
While a complete overhaul of philosophy at the franchise might take several more months, they have the immediate problem of facing a strong Connacht side.
The Irish club made the play-offs last year and have started with three wins in their first four matches of the 2023/24 URC campaign.
“They (Connacht) play dangerously like all the Irish teams, very unpredictable,” Plumtree said. “We have to break them down and defensively it’s going to be tough.
“This game is going to be a really tough challenge for us, they’re a pretty consistent side. So, we’re going to have to play really well, I’m hoping our energy — being back home — will be good. But the Connacht team is a real threat.”
Bulls face familiar foe
The Bulls under Jake White are enjoying a better time of it and currently sit on top of the standings after a strong start to the season. This weekend the challenge is Edinburgh in Scotland.
Edinburgh are coached by Sean Everitt who has worked with White at the Sharks and Bulls previously.
White has opted to deploy a 6-2 split bench once more as he rotates to the team.
“We’ve got Connacht next week, then the Sharks, and then we’ve got Saracens in the Champions Cup. It’s a tough month ahead for us and I would like to just rotate and keep guys fresh,” White said.
“You’ve got to keep them game-ready.
“We’ve brought 33 guys on tour, which is a lot more than the other squads, and the reason for that is the board and my CEO Edgar Rathbone have understood that if we had played four weeks at home we wouldn’t have used the same 28 players.
“So, I’m very fortunate we’ve been allowed to bring more players, and as it stands there’s only been one player who hasn’t played on tour and he’s the third-choice tighthead.
“It’s fantastic that we’re top of the log after a short stint but more importantly it’s fantastic that I’ve been able to use 32 of the 33 players, which is good for our depth, our confidence, and our morale.
“There’s a lot for us to play for and we’ve got an opportunity to stay top of the log, and any team would like to do that.”
Everitt was relishing the challenge while reflecting on how tough the competition has become.
“The Sharks losing to Zebre last week is an indication that there are no easy games this season,” said Everitt.
“The Bulls have done well so far and their contracting has been very smart. They have the least Springboks away other than the Lions, so he will be able to build up the continuity he has now.”
“Jake has also significantly strengthened the set piece with the addition of Wilco Louw and Akker van der Merwe. They have also acquired the services of Jaco van der Walt, who was formerly of Edinburgh and was a valuable member of this squad and I am sure will go on to be a valuable member of the Bulls group.”
Stormers and Lions
The Stormers are at a potentially dangerous crossroads in their campaign. The 2022 champions and 2023 runners-up are staring at a third straight loss after falling to Glasgow and Benetton in the past two rounds. Munster, and a repeat of the 2023 final, await this weekend.
Stormers hooker Scarra Ntubeni said that after the disappointing three-point loss against Benetton it would be important for the 2022 URC champions to stay focused on what they can control in terms of their own performance against Munster.
“We need to get back on the horse and once we get some wins behind our backs the confidence will grow, and then winning becomes a habit,” Ntubeni said.
“Losing two games in a row is tough but I don’t think we need to reinvent the wheel and just execute better and everyone be on the same page. This is when we need guys to step up and take leadership roles — know your job, do your job.
“We’re going to be playing some internationals this weekend, especially in the forward pack. We’re really proud as forwards, and we’ve let ourselves down a bit lately,” he said.
“We’ve tried over the past few seasons to be one of the better packs, and there’s a lot of pressure on us to pull through for the backs.”
The Lions meet Ulster in Belfast on Friday night after a good 24-23 win against the Scarlets in Llanelli last week. The Joburg side will continue with Sanele Nohamba, normally a scrumhalf, at flyhalf for the clash at the Kingspan Stadium. DM
Edinburgh v Bulls (Edinburgh, Friday 21.35)
Ulster v Lions (Belfast, Friday 21.35)
Zebre v Cardiff Rugby (Parma, Friday 21.35)
Sharks v Connacht (Durban, Saturday 17.00)
Dragons v Ospreys (Newport, Saturday 19.15)
Munster v Stormers (Limerick, Saturday 19.15)
Glasgow Warriors v Benetton (Glasgow, Saturday 21.35)
Leinster v Scarlets (Dublin, Saturday 21.35)