Cheetahs to exploit disarray?

    2013-04-18 14:21

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town - To suggest “chaos” in the Sharks camp would be stretching the truth a bit ... after all, they still head up the South African conference in Super Rugby.

    But there are enough areas of concern and in some cases disarray in Durban for the visiting Cheetahs to believe they have a very real chance of knocking over the leaders and possibly even snatching pole position if they can win convincingly enough: three points separate the teams ahead of the Kings Park clash on Saturday (17:05).

    The suggestion a few years ago that the Cheetahs represented a bogey team to the Sharks has lost some of its credibility more recently, especially considering that the phenomenon was more often linked to the Currie Cup anyway.

    All of the five meetings since the tournament changed to the conference system three seasons ago have gone the way of the Sharks, including this year’s first-round meeting in Bloemfontein on February 23 (29-22).

    The last Cheetahs triumph came in the final year of the former Super 14 in 2010, when they prevailed 25-20 in Durban only two rounds into the roster.

    But if the Free Staters want to restore a “hoodoo team” label, Saturday shapes up as a tantalising opportunity to do so, given the current turbulence on the personnel front - some of it admittedly enforced by injury - at Kings Park.

    As much as coach John Plumtree acted decisively on Thursday, following the often lethargy-plagued defeat to the Stormers at Newlands last weekend, by dropping some stellar but under-performing Springbok names from the team to tackle the Cheetahs, such moves can stir unease.

    After all, you would not generally expect players of the proven calibre of Jannie du Plessis, Frans Steyn and Ryan Kankowski to be culled from the mix and it is going to intriguing to see whether the action stings the franchise back into winning ways or whether it has somehow polluted the dressing room atmosphere.

    Plumtree has even gone so far as to put on record that Kankowski, who was a largely anonymously figure when stationed out of favoured position at blindside flank in Cape Town and can’t even find a spot among the subs this time, “will not be touring”.

    The Sharks embark on their four-game overseas leg (Chiefs, Highlanders, Reds and Force in that order) after this encounter, and it seems almost unthinkable that they will do so minus the long-striding Kankowski, who is usually one of their “X-factor” forwards for his ability to bust over the advantage line at high pace.

    With the Sharks labouring to score tries regularly, his form must really be perceived to have dipped violently to be excluded even from a swollen touring party, although the disadvantages of someone going straight out of a Japanese season into Super Rugby have basically been highlighted again.

    While Du Plessis was probably just about due for a dose of “rotation” with the impressive Wiehahn Herbst at tighthead prop anyway (the doctor does still lurk handily on the bench on Saturday), utility back Steyn’s demotion from the XV is another more obviously based on unacceptable recent levels of performance.

    It is not far off a year since his return from France, and although his late 2012 season was disrupted by an ankle injury, why his general conditioning has apparently got so poor seems a million-dollar question.

    Plumtree’s revelation that world-class right wing JP Pietersen also won’t be fit enough for tour consideration with his own ankle problem, is certainly every bit the “massive loss” the coach says it is.

    He is normally integral to the Sharks’ counter-attacking and general offensives from broken play, and  his absence deprives them of an awful lot of backline thrust – the current wing combination of rookie Sean Robinson and the dependable but less-than-express Odwa Ndungane hardly suggests the Durbanites are about to embark on a fresh spell of frequent raids across the try-line.

    It is possible that they may have to pin their hopes once more on Pat Lambie’s mostly unerring boot for plenty of their points against the Cheetahs, and this against a team often renowned for their own “running rugby” principles.

    Like it or not, various issues and snags swirl uncomfortably around Kings Park right now, and the Cheetahs are bound to have taken some mental notes.

    A ray of light for the Sharks is the likely return soon of big forward bruisers Bismarck du Plessis and Willem Alberts.

    But can they bite the bullet satisfactorily in the meantime?

    If they don’t, the SA conference may truly be burst wide open.

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

    The Cheetahs lost their five-match unbeaten streak last weekend against the Bulls while the Sharks lost to the Stormers. Who will get back to winning ways in Durban on Saturday evening? Send your thoughts to Sport24.

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