Cape Town - Kings Park seemed a despondent,
soulless and agonisingly slow-motion place on Friday night.
So thank goodness for the notable exception
of Sibusiso “S’bura” Sithole from a Sharks perspective.
There were gaping gaps on the stands for
the largely academic Super Rugby clash against the Rebels, to the extent that
you could frequently hear from television the on-field exchanges between
players ... including some of the more X-rated ones in a tetchy encounter.
From a skills and urgency point of view, it
was of near-second division quality and the fact that the home side were so visibly
elated and relieved afterwards to have strung together a 25-21 triumph - a rare
second on the trot - only summed up how far the franchise have sunk this year.
You have to sympathise with the squad and
management for the hideous extent to which injuries have bedevilled their
season, and a damaging trend continued here of players pulling out of the
starting XV at the eleventh hour.
On this occasion it was as many as two
members of their intended loose trio, with both Ryan Kankowski and Willem
Alberts (the latter’s stubbornly stop-start career must be of mounting concern
to Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer) failing fitness tests.
As if to jinx things further, they then
surrendered another stalwart in Bok loosehead prop Tendai Mtawarira to what
appeared an upper-leg injury in the first half.
“Beast” has walked a tightrope injury-wise
in the last few weeks and from a national point of view it may be relatively
unwise to pitch him back into the Sharks’ final encounter with the Stormers in
Durban in a fortnight, however keen they will be to knock over their fierce
coastal rivals and field the gnarliest possible unit to achieve it.
The more sensible remedy to his niggles -
on the assumption his latest setback is not more serious - may be a meaningful
rest ahead of the looming Test programme.
Sharks fans needed a shaft of light to
cling to as they filed out of the ageing stadium – local wags might be forgiven
for protesting: “It’s not as old as our tight five” - and it came partly from the
hasty debut at this level of open-side flanker Khaya Majola, a product of the
well-known cricketing family.
The 23-year-old, comfortingly home-grown
player (he was born in Kokstad, educated at Westville Boys’ High and been on
the franchise’s books since his youth employment in 2008) grew steadily into
the contest both at the breakdown and as a ball-carrier after a quiet start.
But easily the main beacon of home-town
satisfaction was the way left wing Sithole cut through the atmosphere of
mediocrity and malaise to produce a truly fire-in-the-belly display.
Sithole, 24, can pretty much be considered
another product of the Sharks’ systems, for although born in Queenstown in the
neighbouring Eastern Cape, they have provided his rugby bread and butter from
2009, when he was still a late teenager.
This is his third year of Super Rugby
experience, but he chose Friday for arguably his most satisfying and visible
personal game yet.
Sithole bristled with purpose and
enterprise virtually every time he was on the ball, and clearly caught the
Rebels unawares of the power and determination that goes into his fairly
modest-looking 1.82m, 94kg frame.
He made important long yardage at times,
aided by clever swerving and jinking, but was also able to look more like one
of those New Zealand-based juggernaut wings on one occasion, pulling off what SuperSport
commentator and former Bok flyhalf Butch James aptly branded a “Maori sidestep”
to simply bowl over a front-on defender.
Just as crucially, James made the point
that on the night Sithole departed from the annoying pattern of too many South
African backs of simply “dying” with the ball when tackled; he either freed his
arms intelligently for the off-load or even slipped through the first challenge
to resume his rampage.
When he notched a thoroughly deserved try,
Sithole used incredible leg drive and power to bulldoze his way over the line
despite being surrounded by several challengers, more in the manner of a hooker
or stout loose forward.
What could make Sithole an attractive squad
option for the Springboks at some stage, if he continues his upward
developmental curve, is his versatility: he can be similarly tenacious when
fielded at outside centre.
That is where James says he fancies his
future stationing as it potentially allows him more involvement than sometimes
catching a cold, as it were, further out.
He did issue the proviso that Sithole may
need further work on his catching and passing skills, but if “ticker” and pure
relish provide two thirds of the making of an outside back, he has those
The former Border Bulldogs man cracked a
Bok training squad last year, so it is not as though Meyer is not aware of his
potential, and he currently looks in better fettle than someone like team-mate
Lwazi Mvovo, who is again part of 2015 national plans but had a dose of the
butter-fingers against the Rebels.
Another dynamic match against the Stormers
in the final round of ordinary season (the Sharks have a bye next weekend)
could take Sithole closer to green-and-gold status than some people think.
At the very least, he is running into form
at a fitting time.
our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing