The Sharks travel to Cape Town this weekend for one of the crunch encounters of the SuperRugby season and, unfortunately and unpropitiously for them, it has been a week of distraction for the Conference leaders.
One of their favourite sons, former Springbok captain John Smit, has been earmarked for a return to the Sharks as CEO – something the union has not denied.
But that good news was offset by a selection controversy that makes one wonder whether the current Sharks management has got to grips at all with transformation imperatives.
Starting on the right wing against the Stormers on Saturday is one Sean Robinson, a 19-year-old originally from Waterkloof High School in Pretoria, who has played just one Vodacom Cup game off the bench, although he did score the match-winning try against the SWD Eagles last weekend.
The decision has baffled and outraged many, however, because Robinson has come from nowhere and suddenly leapfrogged Odwa Ndungane and S’bura Sithole in the queue.
Springbok Ndungane has injury issues, but is well enough to sit on the bench, while Sithole has had few opportunities to display his undoubted talent, but has never looked shy of work.
It’s a controversy that the Sharks really did not need ahead of such a vital game, at a venue as daunting as Newlands. The Stormers may be struggling at the moment, but they have been the best South African side in SuperRugby for the last two years and they will be desperate to turn things around in front of their increasingly impatient home support.
The match is a huge one for the Sharks because victory over the Stormers significantly lowers the chances of them competing for first place in the conference and a home playoff.
Lwazi Mvovo and Louis Ludik are both out injured, which complicates the backline situation, and openside flank Jacques Botes has now joined the crocked list with a broken arm.
Ryan Kankowski replaces him and will play in the number seven jersey, where his pace and attacking ability will still be highly valued. Marcell Coetzee shifts to six and Jean Deysel returns on the bench, and he could be a key factor later in the game because his physicality is exactly what is needed against the Stormers.
It is difficult to pinpoint what exactly is wrong with the Stormers, but one senses coach Allister Coetzee’s confusion as to what his best halfback pairing is does not help.
His decision to restore Dewaldt Duvenhage at scrumhalf makes one wonder what the experienced 24-year-old was doing sitting at home last weekend when the Stormers were lurching to defeat at the hands of the Cheetahs.
The Stormers were only too delighted to loan Elton Jantjies from the Lions, but they don’t seem to have complete faith in him and they haven’t utilised the Springbok to the best of his abilities.
Jantjies is now injured anyway, officially with a knee complaint, although the damage to his confidence is probably more severe, and the Stormers have chosen 23-year-old former Matie Gary van Aswegen at flyhalf.
They will be relying on him to match the kicking game and game-management skills of Pat Lambie, but for that to happen, Van Aswegen will need a solid platform from his forwards.
The Stormers got destroyed in the lineouts by the Crusaders and, last weekend, the Cheetahs were able to snatch victory thanks to their ascendant scrum which got a tighthead in the final minute.
While defensive patterns and scoring tries are important, rugby is as much about the set-pieces, where the Sharks are strong, and the Stormers need to return to basics. Once those are in place, the rest could well click and there is too much quality in their side for them to be written off just yet.
Stormers captain Jean de Villiers said this week that his team was not about to press the panic button, but if they lose to the Sharks and the Cheetahs beat the Bulls, then it might be time because the race for conference honours will then effectively have become a two-horse race.
The Cheetahs are wonderfully in-form after five straight wins, their scrum has been solid, their defence superb and their attack consistently dangerous, which is exactly the sort of confidence-boosters they need if they are to reach another milestone in this fairytale season and beat the Bulls for the first time in SuperRugby.
Bulls coach Frans Ludeke has stressed that his team need to be precise on Saturday because pouncing on mistakes and turning them into points is what the Cheetahs are particularly brilliant at doing.
“They are definitely an in-form team. They have five wins on the trot and that builds confidence in itself. They are very dangerous in broken play – they’ve scored 11 tries in broken play this season. If you make a mistake, they are very accurate in punishing you and their speed to the ball-carrier is very good. That’s why I say we need to be very accurate in the way we play and very disciplined.
“We need to do the basics well. If we have the ball, we need to be accurate, to keep the ball and to create that pressure on the opposition to make sure opportunities come for us,” Ludeke said.
What emphasis the Bulls will place on a kicking game if they want to dominate possession remains to be seen, but what will count against the Cheetahs is their wobbly lineout which will allow the home side to put them under pressure in their own half.
What the Cheetahs can’t do anything about is the fact that the Bulls will be well-rested after a bye and the advantage playing at Loftus Versfeld always give them.
The other South African franchise, the Southern Kings, have already done enough to suggest they could become part of the furniture in SuperRugby and the rookies will be aiming for the second win of their dramatic first season when they take on the Melbourne Rebels in the last game of their overseas tour.
The Kings pulled off the upset of the year when they drew with the Brumbies, who were top of the log, in Canberra last weekend, and the same heroic defence and skilful finishing should see them emerge with the win against the Rebels, who are not the same stellar outfit as the men from ACT are.
The Kings are rapidly shedding the underdogs tag, the valiant losers label, and the unfamiliar weight of expectation is now on their shoulders. The Rebels are a team the Kings can – some would say should – beat and the pressures that creates are the next thing the debutants need to overcome.
The Rebels were in a state of disarray just three weeks ago when they were thrashed 64-7 by the Sharks, and two players were sent home after fighting on the team bus. But since then they showed improvement against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein and then claimed the spoils against the Western Force in Perth last weekend.
Wimpie van der Walt, who owned the astonishing stats of making 19 tackles and missing none last weekend against the Brumbies, will once again spearhead the Kings’ defensive effort at close quarters.
The midfield of Andries Strauss and Waylon Murray was also safe as houses, which they will need to replicate against a talented Rebels backline that will now have the brilliant James O’Connor pulling the strings at flyhalf.
Southern Kings (v Rebels, Saturday 11.40am): George Whitehead, Sergeal Petersen, Waylon Murray, Andries Strauss, Ronnie Cooke, Demetri Catrakillis, Shaun Venter; Cornell du Preez, Wimpie van der Walt, Devin Oosthuizen, Rynier Bernardo, Steven Sykes, Grant Kemp, Hannes Franklin, Schalk Ferreira. Replacements – Bandise Maku, Kevin Buys, David Bulbring, Jacques Engelbrecht, Nicolas Vergallo, Marcello Sampson, Siviwe Soyzwapi.
Stormers (v Sharks, Saturday 5.05pm) – Joe Pietersen, Damian de Allende, Juan de Jongh, Jean de Villiers, Gio Aplon, Gary van Aswegen, Dewaldt Duvenage, Duane Vermeulen, Michael Rhodes, Siya Kolisi, Andries Bekker, De Kock Steenkamp, Frans Malherbe, Deon Fourie, Steven Kitshoff. Replacements – Martin Bezuidenhout, Pat Cilliers, Gerbrandt Grobler, Nizaam Carr, Louis Schreuder, Kurt Coleman, Cheslin Kolbe.
Sharks (v Stormers, Saturday 5.05pm) – Frans Steyn, Sean Robinson, Paul Jordaan, Meyer Bosman, JP Pietersen, Pat Lambie, Cobus Reinach, Keegan Daniel, Ryan Kankowski, Marcell Coetzee, Franco van der Merwe, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Jannie du Plessis, Kyle Cooper, Tendai Mtawarira. Replacements: Craig Burden, Wiehahn Herbst, Anton Bresler, Jean Deysel, Charl McLeod, Riaan Viljoen, Odwa Ndungane.
Bulls (v Cheetahs, Saturday 7.10pm) – Jürgen Visser, Akona Ndungane, JJ Engelbrecht, Jan Serfontein, Lionel Mapoe, Morné Steyn, Jano Vermaak, Pierre Spies, Dewald Potgieter, Deon Stegmann, Juandré Kruger, Flip van der Merwe, Frik Kirsten, Chiliboy Ralepelle, Morné Mellet. Replacements: Callie Visagie, Werner Kruger, Paul Willemse, Arno Botha, Rudy Paige, Louis Fouchè, Ulrich Beyers.
Cheetahs (v Bulls, Saturday 7.10pm) – Hennie Daniller, Willie le Roux, Johann Sadie, Robert Ebersohn, Raymond Rhule, Burton Francis, Piet van Zyl, Phillip van der Walt, Lappies Labuschagne, Heinrich Brüssow, Francois Uys, Lood de Jager, Lourens Adriaanse, Adriaan Strauss, Trevor Nyakane. Replacements – Ryno Barnes, Coenie Oosthuizen, Ligtoring Landman, Frans Viljoen, Tewis de Bruyn, Francois Brummer, Ryno Benjamin.
Friday: Highlanders v Brumbies (9.35am).
Saturday:Chiefs v Reds (6.35am); Blues v Hurricanes (9.35am); Force v Crusaders (1.45pm).