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
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
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
HAVE YOUR SAY:
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