John BishopDurban - The Sharks, pounded off the field and on, face another major test of their character when they take on the rampant Stormers in Durban on Saturday night.The loss of their feisty Springbok hooker Bismarck du Plessis to a serious neck injury in the build-up to the crunch game against the Bulls was followed by a bruising 27-19 defeat at Loftus on Saturday night to finally end any dream of a miracle top four finish.Du Plessis underwent surgery on a damaged vertebra in his neck on Thursday morning and Sharks head coach John Plumtree said on Saturday that early speculation that the combative hooker would be out for only six weeks was way too optimistic.“The injury is far more serious than that and he is not expected to play for at least three months.”Du Plessis will miss the Tests against France and Italy in June, and the first half of the Tri-Nations in July, but it is hoped that he will be ready for the home internationals against Australia and New Zealand in August.The injury is similar to the one suffered by Schalk Burger in 2006 and the Springbok and Stormers flank spent six months on the sideline before successfully returning to the game. In contrast to Burger, who went down with the injury during a Test against Scotland, the 25-year-old Du Plessis only became aware of the problem during practice last week when he battled throwing the ball into the lineouts. A scan on Wednesday revealed damage to a disc in his neck.Plumtree admitted that the loss of Du Plessis had been a major setback for the Sharks ahead of their Bulls game.“We only heard about it on Wednesday and obviously it was a huge blow. Bismarck has been playing exceptionally well and no side can afford to lose a world-class player like that.”It is a measure of Du Plessis’s influence and the respect in which he is held by the Bulls that Plumtree still named the hooker in his starting line-up on Thursday. In his determination not to boost the Bulls’ morale, he also made certain news of Du Plessis’s injury was embargoed until after the Loftus game.“I don’t want the Bulls to get a big boost just before the game,” he told the Witness, off the record, on Friday.The Sharks coach said on Sunday that his players were “battered, sore and disappointed” after the Bulls game.“We’ll have an easy week and see on Thursday who is fit and ready for the Stormers.”Big loose forwards Willem Alberts and Jean Deysel are both doubtful. Alberts, nursing an ankle injury, was only cleared to play shortly before kick-off and Deysel suffered an arm injury during Saturday’s hectic exchanges.“Willem has aggravated the ankle injury and Jean will have to have an X-ray,” said Plumtree.The Sharks coach said he could not fault the players’ commitment and courage but said he was unhappy with lack of accuracy and precision which ultimately cost them territory and the match.“The game was all about territory and the Bulls dominated that in the second half. Some of our kicking was poor and so was our option-taking. We also did not counter the Bulls’ driving lineout and that was a disappointment.”Plumtree said his players had been “worn down by the slow Bulls’ poison.”“We did not just roll over but, no doubt, they were better than us on the day and deserved to win.”Sharks captain John Smit, who moved to hooker to replace Bismarck du Plessis, agreed.“It was a very good game and we are disappointed to lose. Both teams went in looking to play a similar territory game but they stuck to their structures better than us in the second half. And then there was the one slipped tackle and they were away.”The Sharks managed the Bulls forwards smartly in the first half and won a series of penalties which carried them to a 12-3 lead. But the Super 14 champions, more controlled and physical in the second half, kept the Sharks under constant pressure until two tries in the final quarter took them clear.Bulls captain Victor Matfield said that the players’ improved discipline in the second half had been crucial.“Penalties in the first half cost us field position and points,” said Matfield, “but we adapted well in the second half and we did what we wanted to do by dominating territory and applying pressure.”The Sharks now have to contend with the fired-up, flourishing Stormers who need a win to land a home semi-final. Plumtree, in turn, will be hoping that the dispatches from the Sharks medical team over the next few days are more cheerful than they were last week.