Lame lineout haunts Sharks
Steven Sykes (Gallo Images)
Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - Whichever lineout is the lesser of the two "evils" could help sway the outcome of Saturday's key Super Rugby derby between the Cheetahs and Sharks in Bloemfontein.
For on current form, to put it bluntly, both sides are pretty ropey in this department.
The home team may finally be out of any realistic contention for the six-team finals series, but they are unlikely to suddenly abandon the pride and pizzazz they have exhibited in recent weeks - evident even in defeat to the Bulls at Loftus last weekend.
But this clash against a known bogey team is again crucial to the Sharks' survival quest for the playoffs phase, and they will perversely take some heart from the fact that, in the latest round of matches, the Cheetahs' lineout against the Bulls was even worse than theirs against the Waratahs.
There is strong mitigation for the woes at this particular form of set-piece by the Cheetahs: they have been absolutely decimated on the injury front when it comes to lock and loose forward resources.
As coach Naka Drotské admitted ruefully after the Loftus reverse: "The injuries are not an excuse, but we have now lost nine guys - three locks and six loose forwards. The lineouts were definitely a reason we lost (to the Bulls)."
The Cheetahs had Martin Muller, the inexperienced former UCT lock, not only having to compete with the ever-imperious Victor Matfield and company in the skies but also make the calls on his team's throw-in; the Bulls poached Cheetahs ball virtually at will, whatever the dapper visitors tried to do to limit the leakage.
Considering the many weeks that he has been sidelined, people may forget that regular captain Juan Smith is also one of the finest "loosie" lineout jumpers and readers of that phase on the planet: he has been sorely missed by the franchise.
So the Sharks may find that they finally come into the own at lineout time in Bloemfontein - the department continued to be problematic in the touch-and-go triumph over the Waratahs, as it has been virtually throughout the 2011 campaign.
Their ongoing woes here certainly go some distance to explaining why the defending Currie Cup champions have been unpredictable and often unconvincing in Super Rugby this year, and flirting dangerously with descent into anonymity for the remainder of ordinary-season play.
You get the sense that they almost consider it a relief to just pouch their own ball, never mind actually do so on a "quality" basis which can so aid attacking fluidity.
The Sharks' lineout problem is based around several snags, just one being that in the last fortnight or so hooker Bismarck du Plessis has retreated a little (his throwing-in arguably included) from the wonderful form he was exhibiting previously.
Senior locks Steven Sykes and Alistair Hargreaves have not imposed themselves in this area as much as might have been desired by coach John Plumtree - the franchise appear to have struggled to adapt to lineout life since the departure of Johann Muller to Ulster and that spring-heeled old warhorse Albert van den Berg, still plying his trade for Canon in Japan aged 37 (and reportedly intending to soldier on there until he is 39 in 2013).
And there have been occasions, especially with Ryan Kankowski on the crocked list, when the balance of their loose trio, sometimes featuring two low-altitude whippets in Jacques Botes and Keegan Daniel, is slightly compromised from a lineout point of view, even if the latter can sometimes be lifted at the back to good effect.
Their two brawniest loose-forward customers, Willem Alberts and Jean Deysel, are better renowned for their physicality in the tight-loose than for any special artistry at the lineouts, which only adds to their awkwardness.
Still, given the Cheetahs' jumping limitations, might Saturday just represent an opportunity for the Sharks to finally feel a bit more gung-ho about themselves in the department?