Sharks hold most of the aces

    2013-02-26 12:42

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town – Will a week prove to have been long enough for the Stormers to have remedied their array of woes from Loftus?

    That question will be answered at Kings Park on Saturday (kick-off 19:10) when they tackle the Sharks in “phase two” of their stiff three-match start to Super Rugby 2013, which is also to feature the visit of champions the Chiefs to Newlands before Allister Coetzee’s charges pause for a deep breath with a bye.

    The Durban date is keenly awaited nationwide, as it pits against each other the indisputably best-performing franchises in South Africa from last season as a whole: not only did eventual finalists the Sharks and the conference-topping Stormers go further than anyone else from these parts in Super Rugby, but they also met again in their slightly different guises in the Currie Cup final.

    Sharks coach John Plumtree wasted no time this week in pointing out that “our motivation in the off-season” was the slightly upset 25-18 loss in the latter final, against a weakened but grimly determined Western Province outfit.

    Some may interpret that as a deliberate, tactical move to kick an already wounded animal, given the Stormers’ rank incompetence, frankly, in the deserved reverse to the Bulls last Friday.

    But it is also impossible to escape the far from insignificant thought that the Sharks, in holding off the Cheetahs in a pulsating Bloemfontein clash, displayed strengths in all the areas where the Stormers had earlier come up glaringly short on the Highveld.

    So with home advantage in the unforgiving KwaZulu/Natal late summer humidity just another handy ally, it is difficult to believe too many tipsters will be leaning confidently toward the Capetonians.

    First and foremost, perhaps, the Sharks scrum largely delivered a compelling performance in that area that was in marked contrast to the Stormers’ failed quest to subdue a Bulls eight not especially renowned in recent years for technical ability in the department.

    Springbok prop stalwarts Jannie du Plessis and Tendai Mtawarira looked in ominously good early-season nick against the retreating Cheetahs, with the “Beast” appearing to take special relish in turning the heat on Coenie Oosthuizen when the admittedly undercooked behemoth entered the fray after a long layoff as a substitute at tighthead.

    Whether or not the Stormers tweak their front row (and tight five more broadly) for Saturday, expect the home side to spiritedly seek ascendancy once more at scrum-time.

    Another phenomenon from the last round of matches was the Sharks showing positive signs of rectifying their lineout game ... an Achilles’ heel for several years.

    Franco van der Merwe has been a shrewd loan pick-up from the Lions, with his influence evident as the Sharks put plenty of pressure on the Cheetahs’ throw-in, even if their own wasn’t quite the finished article.

    Again by contrast, the Stormers were unusually blundering at the lineout against the Bulls; they could not even get the 2.08m trump card Andries Bekker into the game in that facet much, although lock partner De Kock Steenkamp – whilst still not the ideal No 4 in a broader sense -- mercifully banked a few clean takes.

    Bekker will come under scrutiny in Durban: the lanky Bok was as patchy as the rest of his team-mates at Loftus, and if he sometimes loomed up effectively with those long strides of his in wide positions during attacking moves, he may well be expected to be more influential much nearer the coalface this weekend.

    Then how about the greatly differing fortunes of the flyhalves?

    If Stormers debutant Elton Jantjies scored no more than a hypothetical “four out of 10” at Loftus (his strangely wayward place-kicking especially marking him down), Pat Lambie arguably registered an altogether more glowing eight in Bloemfontein.

    Not only did Test incumbent Lambie land his goals with pleasing efficiency, his general play was assured and constructive, allowing men outside him like Paul Jordaan and Lwazi Mvovo room for some thrilling bursts of pace.

    The Stormers, despite nominally registering two tries to the Bulls’ one in the defeat, still showed a tendency to be a little too lateral and blunt in backline play, and battled to get one of their own most renowned game-breaking flyers, Gio Aplon, into the game.

    All those things said, there will be plenty of astute Sharks fans not wholly prepared to disdainfully write off the Stormers’ chances in the “Tank” on Saturday.

    They will know that atonement for Loftus ought to be a pretty forceful objective in the collective minds of their opponents -- something that could draw the combatants very, very close together.

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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