Cape Town - The Sharks management should have little doubt about the identity of their first-choice players after watching their team slump to a 26-0 defeat to the Western Force in their Neo Africa Tri-Series match at Newlands on Tuesday night.
Neither the established players nor the fringe group covered themselves in glittering gold in front of just under 5 000 people on a tranquil Cape Town summer, but there was no denying that it was once the team was reconfigured after half time that the Sharks were at their best. Not that it was saying anything.
The tournament is being held to enable the three participating teams to prepare for the Super 14. None of the coaches have ever made any bones about the fact that this is an occasion where the process is far more important than the end result. It was a sloppy, disjointed game so typical of pre-season friendlies and won’t be remembered beyond the week.
But Sharks coach John Plumtree was right when he said the other day that his top players are too competitive to just happily accept defeat, and it proved the case when he rang the changes at half time.
Up to that point the Sharks had been comprehensively outplayed by the Western Force, who this time opted to field their first string players after their second string was comprehensively drubbed by the Stormers last Saturday.
The Force scored three tries in the first half, the first coming when lock Sam Wykes drove strongly over the line in the sixth minute. Then around the 20 minute mark came a big scrum from Western Force, with Matt Dunning getting the better of Springbok Beast Mtawarira, so forcing the turn-over.
The Force ran strongly off their solid put-in, with Ryan Cross going over for a try that was too easy in its conception to sit comfortably with the Sharks as they look forward to the Super 14.
And it looked even worse in the 29th minute when the Force easily outflanked the Sharks to put Cameron Shepherd in at the right corner. Again, the Sharks will feel their defensive effort let them down, and when former Lions and Bok flyhalf Andre Pretorius slotted the conversion from touch, it was 19-0 to the Force.
The Sharks had started though without several stalwarts and first choice Springboks, and though they never closed the gap that had been opened up, they were noticeably slicker, sharper and more urgent after half time when John Smit, Johann Muller, Rory Kockott, JP Pietersen and Bismarck du Plessis were on the field.
Incidentally Smit came on this time as a tighthead, replacing Jannie du Plessis so that the other Du Plessis, Bismarck, could get 40 minutes of game time. However, Craig Burden, who played in the first half, furthered the argument that the Sharks don’t have just two class hookers on their books, they have three.
Much though they tried, however, the Sharks were unable to make an impression on a Force defence that delivered on the pre-match promise of improving markedly on their effort against the Stormers. It should be disturbing to the Sharks that they so seldom threatened the Force tryline.
Indeed, for all their second-half effort, the Sharks were outscored after half time, with James O’Connor crossing for his team’s fourth try two minutes from fulltime. This was a different Force team to the one that started against the Stormers, with Cross, skipper Nathan Sharpe, Pretorius, Dunning, Cameron Shepherd, James O’Connor and other top players adding the experience and presence that was missing in the first 40 minutes last Saturday.
Pretorius in particular can feel pleased with his first start for the Force on South African soil. He was a creative presence in two of the three Force first-half tries.
For the Sharks it was a disappointing start to the season, one that appeared to vindicate the view of the more pessimistic Durban critics that they lack the depth they boasted when they were contenders for the trophy a few seasons ago and shouldn’t be aiming for much higher than a mid-table finish in 2010.
Tries: Sam Wykes, Ryan Cross, Cameron Shepherd, James O’Connor
Conversions: Andre Pretorius (2), O’Connor