Loftus Versfeld is a site where the Sharks have not seen much success in the last few years, so it may cause some surprise that coach Gary Gold has made five changes to the starting line-up that secured an impressive victory over the Stormers in Cape Town for Friday night’s SuperRugby derby against the Bulls.
But it is a short week for the Sharks – the Bulls are coming off a bye – and there are so many sore bodies after the titanic effort against the Stormers that a few fresher legs will be good for the visitors and, because they are all players promoted from the bench, there is not that much disruption.
One change has been injury-enforced with powerhouse flank Jean-Luc du Preez struggling with a foot injury and he is replaced by former Cheetahs star Philip van der Walt.
Lwazi Mvovo returns on the left wing, with JP Pietersen shifting to the right and Odwa Ndungane moving down to the bench; Michael Claassens swops with Cobus Reinach at scrumhalf; and two of the replacement front-rowers, tighthead Lourens Adriaanse and hooker Kyle Cooper, will get their first starts of the campaign as Coenie Oosthuizen and Franco Marais shift to the bench.
“When we do our planning, there are loads of factors we take into consideration and you can’t plan for injuries, which force you to rotate. It’s not that we’re resting players now, but we want to stop the rot for three or four guys and then there’ll be other guys rotated in three or four weeks time, so that by Week 12, when the tournament has become really rigorous, the players aren’t overloaded,” Gold explained on Wednesday.
“Every guy coming into the starting line-up has come off the bench every week so there’s no disruption. The same team that finished against the Stormers and the Jaguares is starting this week, we want to keep disruption to a minimum. There’s no question that 15 guys can’t win week in and week out, for any franchise. It has to be a group of 20 to 25 and you pray for a group of 30.”
Despite both teams having committed themselves to a new era in terms of the way they play, it will still be a huge physical battle in Pretoria and, even though they have chosen two second-choice front-rowers, the Sharks know they will be hit hard up front first. They will have to absorb those blows and it will also be useful having the accomplished boot of Claassens at a place like Loftus Versfeld where the ball travels for miles thanks to altitude, and territory is crucial.
“The Bulls are quite fresh and they will bring massive physicality. It’s always a set-piece battle at Loftus and the Bulls are very strong there with Adriaan Strauss leading from the front. Our record’s not all that great there and we want to make amends for the past, we’ve had a very disappointing run against them,” captain Tendai Mtawarira said of a streak of four successive defeats in Pretoria and three in a row to the Bulls home and away.
Sharks team: Willie le Roux, JP Pietersen, Paul Jordaan, Andre Esterhuizen, Lwazi Mvovo, Joe Pietersen, Michael Claassens, Daniel du Preez, Philip van der Walt, Marcell Coetzee, Stephan Lewies, Etienne Oosthuizen, Lourens Adriaanse, Kyle Cooper, Tendai Mtawarira (C). Bench – Franco Marais, Juan Schoeman, Coenie Oosthuizen, Hyron Andrews, Keegan Daniel, Cobus Reinach, Garth April, Odwa Ndungane.