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Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Sharks' lesser lights a key?
Cape Town – The Sharks jigsaw, so often a confusing sea of scattered pieces this season, suddenly seems to fit rather snugly.
Whether this slightly unexpected state of affairs will be enough to see them past firm favourites the Crusaders in their Super Rugby “quarter-final” at Nelson on Saturday (09:35 SA time) remains to be seen, but if their new-look combo can click even more convincingly than they did in the terrific Loftus dismantling of the Bulls, they will give at least a spirited account of themselves against the seven-times champions.
Then again, Sharks supporters of more cynical inclination will be quick to retort that there have been other stages in the current season – especially early on -- when they seemed an irresistible force, only to lose their mojo in a pretty pronounced way.
Yet there is perhaps reason to believe that, in the team which took to the field in Pretoria, lies more than a semblance of hope for a late flourish in the campaign.
Why, three good days at the office and the Sharks might even be maiden champions; much stranger things have happened in sport, after all!
Whether by accident or design, and maybe there was a bit of both involved, John Plumtree appeared to smack all 15 of his starting “pegs” into the ground quite brilliantly last Saturday – to such an extent that prodigious tampering (or any at all) with the run-on troops for the big challenge ahead in New Zealand seemed most unlikely by the coach if injuries have stayed away.
A particularly pleasing feature of last Saturday, I thought, was the way some Sharks players who have mostly veered toward mediocrity this season contributed to the upset.
Just one was Gerhard Mostert: probably only getting his start because of (ongoing) injury to Steven Sykes, the former Lions lock produced a near-classical No 4 display, making some aggressive, high-paced carries and doing his unglamorous donkeywork well, too.
The Sharks would have liked Sykes’ seasoned qualities for expected wet-weather conditions at Trafalgar Park, but the 120kg – thus very decently physically equipped -- Mostert will be anything but a liability if he has a bee in his bonnet once more.
It was he who made a strong (and so often important) early statement at Loftus when, before the first minute had run its course, he grabbed nuggety Bulls scrumhalf Francois Hougaard and dragged him backwards like a rag doll for 10 metres or so.
A couple of other less obvious Sharks “pin-ups”, if you like, also produced the goods encouragingly that day.
As popular former skipper Gary Teichmann observed to Sport24 this week, it was gratifying to see Meyer Bosman come to the party at inside centre – particularly in a committed defensive capacity, where the Sharks midfield has come under the microscope for all the wrong reasons too frequently this season.
Of course the Sharks’ resilience in this area of the park is bound to be severely tested once more: Sonny Bill Williams and Dan Carter, as sure as New Zealand produces good white wines, will have a ball-in-hand crack at the rival Nos 12 and 10 channels occupied by Messrs Bosman and Freddie Michalak respectively.
Also reason to up the likelihood of a concerted late-campaign flourish by the Sharks, is the return of scrumhalf Charl McLeod to the kind of personal levels last witnessed in their Currie Cup-winning season last year.
Of late he has been much more effervescent and decisive than had been the case during some of the Sharks’ strange “trough” periods in Super Rugby conference play, when errors crept into his play to a frustrating extent.
Too regularly, the Sharks have relied on the consistent muscularity and work-rate of people like Bismarck du Plessis, Beast Mtawarira and Willem Alberts for any go-forward they’ve enjoyed, and also depended too much for backline thrust and flair on JP Pietersen and Pat Lambie.
A repeat of the more genuinely “collective” effort, so harmoniously evidenced in Pretoria, would go some way to securing an upset this Saturday ...