Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Sharks coach John Plumtree has admitted that not
automatically starting Saturday’s Super Rugby final with his best XV “could
It might sound at first hearing like a bizarre thing to say,
especially given that his team are desperate to finally land the crown after failure
in all of three previous finals (1996, 2001 and 2007).
But the circumstances are highly unorthodox for this
showdown with the Chiefs in Hamilton, given the peculiar, debilitating amount
of travelling across time zones that the Sharks have had to endure over the
Many consider this their “Mission Impossible” as a result
... so Plumtree, who is not shy anyway to stray from the conventional at times,
may well consider a creative element to his team plans to give his undoubtedly
weary troops their best possible chance.
Nine times out ten, a team playing a game of this magnitude
would clearly want to start with the best possible combination on paper, but
Plumtree is also well aware of the increasing danger that some of the most
vital elements to his arsenal may fade, through no fault of their own, as the
Probed by Sport24 after the dramatic semi-final victory over
the Stormers on Saturday night, about the possibility of actually injecting some
of his normal first-choices off the bench in the critical later stages rather
than their potentially losing some oomph when it really counts, he said: “Yep
... could happen. Dead right.
“It’s something I haven’t really thought about yet, of
course. You’ve got to get into some real detail when it comes to that –
obviously it means things change in terms of your strategy; lineouts,
“So it would be a big call ... but possible.”
Just by way of example, the routinely outstanding hooker
Bismarck du Plessis must be nearing the point of exhaustion -- a situation
probably not helped by the fearful blow he took from a charging Eben Etzebeth
early in Saturday’s derby, which looked as close to a concussion as you could
Yet the all-Springbok front row of Du Plessis, his brother
Jannie and Beast Mtawarira are also essential ingredients to the Sharks’ quest
to soften up opponents at scrum-time -- and more broadly, in the open-play
collisions -- from early on it matches.
Plumtree said after the semi that Du Plessis was “all
right”, adding a quip that the Bok hooker was “dancing – badly – in the
dressing room when I left it a few minutes ago”.
Plenty of Sharks fans would consider it unthinkable for the
big No 2 to begin the final curtailed to “jersey 16”.
But an opposite view, while still keeping bigger-picture
requirements in mind, might be this: just imagine the collective tonic it would
provide for the visitors to be able to unleash such a big-name customer like a
caged, ravenous animal at the start of the second half or thereabouts?
It still remains a long shot, admittedly, that a player of
Du Plessis’s class would not begin the showpiece game – besides, braver men
than Plumtree would probably recoil at the very thought of breaking any
strategic news along those lines to him.
Perhaps a little more viable, if the Sharks decide to employ
certain “special” personnel among their subs, might be consideration to
starting a street-smart, established player like Steven Sykes – busy when he
entered the fray on Saturday – at lock and having Willem Alberts as a
second-half, game-breaking infusion of note (either in the second row or in a
loose forward capacity).
Alberts picked up a knock to the groin area during the
semi-final and his suitability to going full-out for 80 minutes against the
Chiefs will doubtless be assessed by Plumtree and his medical advisers during
the next few days – as will “heavy game-time” considerations around other men.
As it is, Plumtree is in the relatively happy position of
having certain players – Pat Lambie and Paul Jordaan come to mind – reportedly returning
to selection contention after injury, and among the 24-strong party currently
preparing in Sydney before shifting onward to New Zealand on Thursday.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s probably still every chance the
Sharks will not stray too much, if at all, from a full-strength starting XV,
and simply seek “one last heroic effort” from them before standard bench stocks
are raided as the game grinds on.
But if Plumtree does pull a left-field selection move or two
out of the hat, he should not be instantly crucified for it.
There may be method to his perceived madness ... these are
“mad” times, after all, for the extraordinarily globetrotting Sharks.
Now, more than ever, it will be about 22 players truly doing
the business – regardless of what particular passages of the final they
actually see service in.
*Follow our chief
writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing