Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - Thank goodness for the inactive Lions ... that’s what beleaguered Sharks coach John Plumtree must be thinking as his franchise raids their resources with increasing gusto.
The Super Rugby discards could almost be said to be reinventing themselves in the 2013 competition - albeit in the unintended colours of the Durban-based franchise, where some “pleased to meet you” exchanges probably loom.
Knocked near-senseless by a mounting injury toll that appears to swell virtually by the hour, the Sharks have embarked on their Australasian leg on a wing and a prayer, and probably fearing that from an imperious position at the top of the SA conference not much more than a fortnight ago, disappearing right off the playoffs radar is suddenly an uncomfortable possibility.
At full strength, 2012 finalists the Sharks are arguably a match for just about any side in the competition, but they are also the sort of side who really “feel it” when core figures in their game-plan are absent.
Their traditional strength is to punch holes in opposition defences through the extraordinary muscularity of such characters as Beast Mtawarira
, Bismarck du Plessis and Willem Alberts
, which then frees up vital space for JP Pietersen
and company to come thundering irresistibly across the advantage line.
Yet all of those names, and a whole lot more, are currently crocked (Pietersen at least is in the tour mix, though his readiness for action is uncertain, given that just a few days ago he was using crutches to protect an injured ankle).
In the space of less than a week, the Sharks have almost taken on a “two team” look, with idle Lions players - that very fact could cause a problem of its own in terms of suitable Super Rugby match fitness - being picked up almost willy-nilly on a loan basis.
Typically only underlining their wretched luck, one such recruit - Andries Coetzee - has already debuted and promptly been sidelined after a wretched fall on a shoulder during the Sharks’ snore-fest home defeat to the Cheetahs.
But the travelling group still includes four players currently contracted to the Johannesburg outfit, in Franco van der Merwe, Derick Minnie, Piet Lindeque and now also the strongly reassuring addition of JC Janse van Rensburg.
The pedigreed loosehead prop amounts to temporary manna from heaven considering the predicament the Sharks found themselves in at the weekend, with Mtawarira hurting a calf - probably eliminating him from any on-field activity during the period the Sharks are away - and intended supplementary presence Allan Dell also succumbing to long-term injury during a Vodacom Cup game.
Utility front-ranker Danie Mienie - he can be used as a prop or hooker - was added to the squad even as negotiations for Van Rensburg were being finalised, although it will come as little comfort to Sharks enthusiasts that Mienie isn’t even guaranteed a spot in the Vodacom Cup starting XV at present.
Little wonder that Plumtree, who is beginning to sound alarmingly downbeat about his charges even as they prepare for the not inconsiderable challenge of champions the Chiefs in Hamilton first up, apparently asked a scrum of journalists before departure whether any of them fancied duty in a No 1 shirt.
When you hear your own coach saying things like “I’m getting the feeling this isn’t our season” as early as the midway mark of the ordinary programme, it is difficult to believe that many in the Sharks touring party are feeling too chipper about their prospects in New Zealand and then Australia.
Such is the upheaval and uncertainty that even the winless Highlanders, who will conveniently tackle the Sharks off a revitalising bye, may already be thinking that the Dunedin clash is an opportunity to finally break their 2013 duck at the ninth attempt.
Of course it is one thing to call on players from another union, but quite another to quickly filter them into the “Sharks system” and build the necessary team spirit - perhaps Plumtree’s main motivating device will actually be to point constantly to the adversity his men find themselves in.
Following their NZ leg, the Sharks move on to meetings with the champions of two years ago, the Reds, and then the Force in Perth on the way home.
They will probably need to bank at least two wins abroad if they are to keep their playoffs challenge alight, and must also attempt to burgle bonus points wherever possible - though those of the four-try variety aren’t exactly coming dime a dozen to them.
But for the moment, Plumtree is probably pondering only what sort of starting line-up to cobble together in Hamilton ...Revised Sharks tour squad:Forwards:
Anton Bresler, Craig Burden, Marcell Coetzee
, Kyle Cooper, Keegan Daniel
(captain), Jean Deysel, Jannie du Plessis, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Derick Minnie, Wiehahn Herbst, Lubabalo Mtembu, Franco van der Merwe, JC Janse van Rensburg, Danie Mienie.Backs: Meyer Bosman
, Paul Jordaan, Patrick Lambie
, Piet Lindeque, Charl McLeod, Odwa Ndungane
, JP Pietersen
, Cobus Reinach
, Sean Robinson, Francois Steyn, Riaan Viljoen, S'bura Sithole.*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing