Sharks coach John Plumtree has instituted what superficially looks like a cleanout of players as his team try to get their SuperRugby campaign back on track at the home ground of the defending champions, the Chiefs, on Saturday.
Plumtree has made 11 changes to the team that lost to the Cheetahs last weekend in Durban, but some are just positional switches and others have been forced upon him as the KwaZulu-Natalians battle an injury epidemic.
Jean Deysel will captain the team, and the burly loose forward is sure to lead from the front. Regular captain Keegan Daniel will watch from the bench, as will another standout loose forward, Marcell Coetzee.
Francois Steyn, who led the team while Daniel was injured, is back in the starting line-up, but this time the even burlier Springbok will be playing outside centre as Paul Jordaan has succumbed to a knee injury.
Jannie du Plessis returns to anchor the scrum at tighthead and there are other key decision-makers in the starting line-up like Pat Lambie at flyhalf, Meyer Bosman at inside centre and Odwa Ndungane on the wing to lessen the impression that Plumtree is throwing a second-string XV into battle in Hamilton.
But there is inexperience in the team as well, with Piet Lindeque, who normally plays in midfield, on the left wing and Lubabalo Mthembu starting at eighthman in just his second SuperRugby outing.
Apart from Daniel and Coetzee, other regular starters who are being kept in cotton wool on the bench are hooker Kyle Cooper, lock Franco van der Merwe and scrumhalf Cobus Reinach.
Perhaps the most interesting selection is that of Joburg-based flank Derick Minnie, who will fulfil the ball-scavenging job, at number six. The Lions star will want to show just why he was one of that ill-fated team’s best players – and perhaps earn himself a guaranteed SuperRugby contract along the way.
Although it will irk anxious Sharks fans who are lamenting two successive losses, it seems that Plumtree has taken the pragmatic view that his best available XV would probably lose to the mighty Chiefs anyway and get further exhausted after travelling to New Zealand; targeting tour games against the Highlanders, Reds and Force instead for valuable away wins with a refreshed team to reignite last year’s finalists’ campaign.
The other losers from last weekend’s round of South African derbies were the Southern Kings, who were blanked 34-0 by the Bulls the weekend after returning home from their glorious overseas tour.
The Kings have really pulled together impressive support from fans in the Eastern Cape region, but this weekend they face a new challenge: A local derby away from home, against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein.
The Kings are no longer unknown quantities and the Bulls showed them some bald facts about SuperRugby last weekend. But the extra week at home will have done them good and Cheetahs coach Naka Drotske’s biggest worry may be that his side will be a touch complacent after their fabulous start, with mental fatigue creeping in as they still have not had a bye.
The Cheetahs should win if they produce similar performances to when they tamed the mighty packs of both the Stormers and Sharks.
But if the Cheetahs are a bit off their game – and maybe that’s due after nine straight weeks of action – and the Southern Kings once again do the unthinkable and win, it could lead to quite an indaba in the corridors of the South African Rugby Union.
Victory for the Kings could lift them to within five points of the Stormers, who are now on tour, raising the possibility of last year’s conference winners having to play promotion/relegation against the Lions later this year.
But for the Kings to win, they will need to raise the bar quite some distance from last weekend’s performance. They have sensibly returned to the impenetrable loose trio of Jacques Engelbrecht, Wimpie van der Walt and Cornell du Preez that has served them so well this season, with Luke Watson, ever a talking point, on the bench for when the game opens up.
Waylon Murray completes a pair of Springboks on the bench as Ronnie Cooke has been preferred at outside centre, with Siyanda Grey and Michael Killian on the wings.
Fortunes have changed so quickly in the South African Conference this season and, at the moment, it is the Bulls who are sitting pretty at the top, after breezing to a bonus-point win over the Kings last weekend.
They were singing an entirely different tune just three weeks ago when they returned from overseas with three straight defeats and they will be desperate to beat the Waratahs at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday to also quieten down talk of a union in crisis due to a rumoured player exodus sparked by some salaries being halved.
The Bulls have left out fetcher flank Deon Stegmann from their match-day squad, but the way hooker Chiliboy Ralepelle competed at the breakdowns last weekend, he shouldn’t be missed as coach Frans Ludeke has preferred the combative trio of Pierre Spies, Arno Botha and Dewald Potgieter, with the physical presence of Jacques Potgieter on the bench.
History may be against the Waratahs – they have not beaten the Bulls since 2005 and have not won in Pretoria since 2002 – but the New South Welshmen showed last weekend versus the Chiefs that, when their game clicks, they are competitive against the best in the tournament.
If a practically all-Wallaby pack can get on top in the tight exchanges, then the Waratahs can rely on exciting backs like Drew Mitchell, Adam Ashley-Cooper and Israel Folau to put points on the scoreboard.
Just like last weekend, however, if the Bulls are on their game from the start, maintain the momentum of the last two weeks and get their passionate supporters behind them, then the Waratahs’ minds could dwell on their awful recent record against the three-time champions and not on the job at hand.
The Stormers embark on the first leg of their overseas tour when they take on the Hurricanes in Palmerston North on Friday.
The return of Bryan Habana is a welcome boost for the Stormers, but the Springboks’ leading try-scorer will probably be focusing more on the defensive aspects of the game than on running the ball.
Against the masters of broken-field play and the most lethal counter-attackers around, the Stormers are unlikely to be throwing the ball around as the Hurricanes are renowned for pouncing on the slightest error.
The performance of the inconsistent Stormers pack will be the key to the outcome as the defensive system masterminded by Jacques Nienaber still seems to be in good nick, with just nine tries conceded in seven matches, once again the best in SuperRugby.
A bonus-point win for the Stormers and defeats for the Bulls, Sharks and Cheetahs could see them climbing to the pinnacle of the South African Conference.
The Hurricanes have had the unwanted distraction this week of star winger Julian Savea appearing in the Wellington District Court on charges of assaulting his partner and the All Black’s absence does weaken the potency of the home side’s backline.
Stormers (v Hurricanes, Friday 9:35): Joe Pietersen, Gio Aplon, Juan de Jongh, Jean de Villiers, Bryan Habana, Gary van Aswegen, Dewaldt Duvenage, Duane Vermeulen, Michael Rhodes, Siya Kolisi, Andries Bekker, De Kock Steenkamp, Pat Cilliers, Deon Fourie, Steven Kitshoff. Replacements: Scarra Ntubeni, Brok Harris, Rynhardt Elstadt, Nizaam Carr, Nic Groom, Louis Schreuder, Damian de Allende.
Sharks (v Chiefs, Saturday 9:35): Riaan Viljoen, Odwa Ndungane, Frans Steyn, Meyer Bosman, Piet Lindeque, Pat Lambie, Charl McLeod, Lubabalo Mtembu, Jean Deysel, Derick Minnie, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Anton Bresler, Jannie du Plessis, Craig Burden, Wiehahn Herbst. Replacements: Kyle Cooper, Danie Mienie, Franco van der Merwe, Keegan Daniel, Marcell Coetzee, Cobus Reinach, Sbura Sithole.
Bulls (v Waratahs, Saturday 17:05): Jürgen Visser, Akona Ndungane, JJ Engelbrecht, Jan Serfontein, Bjorn Basson, Morné Steyn, Jano Vermaak, Pierre Spies, Arno Botha, Dewald Potgieter, Juandré Kruger, Flip van der Merwe, Werner Kruger, Chiliboy Ralepelle, Dean Greyling. Replacements: Willie Wepener, Hencus van Wyk, Wilhelm Steenkamp, Jacques Potgieter, Francois Hougaard, Louis Fouchè, Lionel Mapoe.
Cheetahs (v Southern Kings, Saturday 19:10): 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, Coenie Oosthuizen. Replacements: Ryno Barnes, Trevor Nyakane, Ligtoring Landman, Frans Viljoen, Sarel Pretorius, Elgar Watts, Ryno Benjamin.
Southern Kings (v Cheetahs, Saturday 19:10): George Whitehead, Siyanda Grey, Ronnie Cooke, Andries Strauss, Michael Killian, Demetri Catrakillis, Shaun Venter, Jacques Engelbrecht, Wimpie van der Walt, Cornell du Preez, Rynier Bernardo, Steven Sykes, Kevin Buys, Bandise Maku, Schalk Ferreira. Replacements: Virgile Lacombe, Grant Kemp, David Bulbring, Luke Watson, Nicolas Vergallo, Waylon Murray, Siviwe Soyzwapi.
Other fixtures: Reds v Blues (Friday, 11:40); Brumbies v Force (Saturday, 11:40); Crusaders v Rebels (Sunday, 6:05).