Sharks may shuffle their XV

    2012-07-30 12:07

    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 happen”.

    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 past fortnight.

    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 final progresses.

    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, scrummaging, everything.

    “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 possibly get.

    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

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