The Cell C Sharks will be without arguably the most robust loose forward in the country this year for their Vodacom SuperRugby clash with the Bulls at Loftus Versfeld on Friday, but Jean-Luc du Preez will be replaced by the under-rated and experienced Philip van der Walt for the crunch local derby in Pretoria.
Du Preez suffered what has been described as a “minor” foot injury in the Sharks’ gripping win over the Stormers last weekend in Cape Town, but Van der Walt, who has made a different, more dynamic if less physical impact off the bench during the Sharks’ three-match unbeaten run, is a more-than-capable replacement.
The 26-year-old former Cheetahs star is one of five changes to the Sharks starting line-up coach Gary Gold announced on Wednesday, a short week encouraging some rotation amongst the players.
Lwazi Mvovo returns to 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.
Of course, making five changes to the most in-form team in the country does bring certain risks, but Gold is confident that the introduction of fresher legs will actually aid their momentum rather than harm it.
“We are really keen to keep the momentum going now and, as a result, our confidence will keep growing. It’s the reason we’ve rotated a few guys this week, we want to improve each week and keep on building as a team and we have a huge amount of confidence in the guys that have come off the bench. They have made a significant difference to our games at critical stages.
“There were a few sore bodies after the Stormers match, so it made sense to make a few changes. These changes are not disruptive and it does mean that other guys that have put their hands up have an opportunity to start this week, rather than come off the bench,” Gold said.
Van der Walt agreed that the changes would not weaken the Sharks for what they believe will be another demanding away derby.
“We have a big group and the two different teams that played in France played just as well as each other, as well as allowing us to get used to playing with each other. So there’s no big difference or harm to the momentum we’ve created. The core of the team is the same, the coach hasn’t changed too much, it’s just subtle changes.
“It’s been tough sitting on the bench, but all the other loose forwards have played well. The team is my main focus and how I can improve the team, so I could give everything for 20 minutes and continue contributing. I’ve just been trying to do the best I can, luckily I’ve had good form.
“The competition for places is a good thing, it pushes you to new levels. It’s lovely to have, especially for the coaches. As players, you always want to start, but we have this added incentive now. Fortunately us loosies all get along well and we push each other too,” Van der Walt said.
The space on the bench created by Van der Walt’s elevation will be filled by Keegan Daniel, back in the country after a stint in Japan and poised to play his first match in South Africa since 2014.
The Sharks have tasted bitter defeat in their last four SuperRugby visits to Loftus Versfeld, dating back to June 2011, and have lost three in a row to the Bulls home and away, so they are right to be wary despite their highly impressive performance last weekend and the lofty heights they are currently enjoying as the only unbeaten team alongside the Brumbies.
“We’re not expecting anything different to the Stormers game, the Bulls back three is just as capable and they also always pride themselves on big forwards and big drives. And they’re coming off a good win and a good rest, so they’re definitely going to come out firing.
“We worked hard last week because we knew the Stormers have a good set-piece, especially the scrums, and we were able to stand our ground and even get one or two of their balls. If the opposition have a good scrum then that’s something you focus on, and we know it’s most important that we carry that same effort into the next game,” Van der Walt said.
The Bulls scrum has endured some bitter experiences in recent times, but they will certainly be working hard on that facet of their game, and the Sharks will need to be at their best in that department.
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.