Sharks emerge as darkhorses
Sport24 columnist Alan Solomons (File)
The Sharks’ win over the Stormers last weekend has thrown the South African Conference wide open. The SA Conference is now certainly a three-horse race.
The Sharks are starting to come to the fore and still have a mathematical chance of winning the SA Conference. They are a terrific all-round side and have a number of players back from injury. At the moment, they are looking like the strongest South African side.
I cannot see Heyneke Meyer not starting the Sharks front row against England. Bismarck du Plessis is really starting to hit his straps and you can see why he is rated as the best hooker in the world. The trio form a very good combination. Jannie du Plessis has great experience, while the "Beast" has tremendous strength and mobility.
On current form, Marcell Coetzee is the best opensider in the country. He will compete with Heinrich Brussow for a place, but I reckon he is ahead of him in terms of all-round game. He has been one of the finds of the Super Rugby season.
I think now is the ideal time for talented youngsters to emerge. Post-World Cup is a time to freshen up and change. Personally, I would now start playing Coetzee and Eben Etzebeth for the Boks, because they are both class players.
Steven Kitshoff has also done incredibly well for a young man at prop and the Stormers will miss his influence - having joined the Baby Boks for the impending IRB Junior World Championships.
The Stormers have had a terrific season, but it’s hard to stay at the top all the time. They are looking as though they are flagging somewhat and injuries are hampering the side. Schalk Burger - who has been out from early in the tournament - has been a major loss for them.
Joe Pietersen will be missed enormously as he was last weekend. He is an excellent fullback and real game breaker.
That said, the Stormers’ game has been based on defence and not attack. They have a potent backline, but they have not brought them into play much this season - evidenced by the fact that they have not scored many tries.
Because their defence is so strong and they have achieved so much on the back of it, I feel they have lost the balance between offence and defence. They are not attack-minded enough.
I see the Bulls have omitted Johann Sadie from their match 22 this weekend. Sadie is a terrific talent, but there has always been a question mark from pundits over his defence. I don’t think it’s something that cannot be cured, but the selection of JJ Engelbrecht at outside centre is an excellent choice.
While it will be a tight game, the Stormers are starting to look tired and I think this weekend’s game will be a bridge too far for them. I expect the Bulls to prevail at home.
The Bok squad to face England will be named directly after the North/South derby and I expect that will be added motivation for both teams. Although Heyneke will pretty much have made up his mind, there will always be one or two question marks. A strong performance from a player can have an influence.
I hear Fourie du Preez is well in the mix. He was one of the players of his generation and while Francois Hougaard can play on the wing, it’s not his best position. He is an unbelievable scrumhalf. For me, Hougaard and Will Genia are the top two scrumhalves in world rugby.
Turning to the Australian Conference, fundamentally it is now a two-horse race. The Reds’ win over the Brumbies was very big for them - who have done exceptionally well this season. Those two sides are head and shoulders above their compatriots. I think the Reds are coming good at the right time.
The Chiefs are still the team of the tournament - they look like they are going to win it, but there is still a way to go.
I think the Waratahs v Hurricanes game will be a high-scoring affair, but I expect the ‘Canes to win it. They displayed some superb skill last week against the Rebels and we could be in for much of the same. The Waratahs are having a woeful time of late, having lost five games on the trot.
The Crusaders host the Highlanders and I don’t think the visitors have the firepower to defeat them. I’m tipping the Hurricanes to finish above the Highlanders in the New Zealand Conference.
Alan Solomons was assistant coach to Nick Mallett when the Springboks went 17 Tests unbeaten. He is currently EP Kings’ Director of Rugby and is a consultant to the IRB.
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