RUGBY NEWS - The Cell C Sharks arrived in Australia with a squad of 27 players but it is not known from several thousands of kilometres just how many of those players would be ready to play in Saturday’s Vodacom Super Rugby quarterfinal if they were required to.
Sharks coach Robert du Preez was involved in frantic discussions with his medical staff when the rest of the squad were celebrating their last gasp win over the DHL Stormers in Cape Town on Sunday night. Makazole Mapimpi and Aphelele Fassi left the field injured and they were both concerns on Saturday, and of course Tendai ‘Beast’ Mtawarira, who pulled out on the eve of the Newlands match with a knee injury that has been troubling him for some time, did not make the trip to Australia.
The latter’s absence will be felt in a match where every bit of big match experience will be crucial to the Sharks, but at least the current front-row is a settled unit that has now played several games together. In fact, although the Stormers did get the better of the scrumming battle at the weekend, Mzamo Majola looks like a star of the future in the front row and a good replacement for Beast if, as anticipated, he calls it a day after the World Cup in Japan.
Ruan Botha will also be sorely missed in Canberra, but Hyron Andrews has made a lot of progress this season and appears to be growing in stature with every game. He would have been one of three candidates for the Sharks’ man of the match award.
The others would have been Lukhanyo Am, who scored the winning try, and Rhyno Smith, who was influential way beyond the freaky breakaway try that he scored that was effectively a 12 point swing against the Stormers (Robert du Preez junior didn’t succeed with the conversion) at a crucial stage of the first half.
It was a try that was reminiscent of the one that Mapimpi scored against the Emirates Lions in Durban a couple of weeks ago. And it was as crucial. The Lions could well have won that day at Kings Park had it not been for Mapimpi’s try. Tries like that are the product of good defence and if there is one member of the Sharks coaching team that deserves kudos for what he has done this season it is defence coach Braam van Straaten, who curiously wasn’t with the Sharks when they conceded five tries to the Jaguares in Buenos Aires in their penultimate league match.
The Sharks’ defence has leaked like a sieve in some individual matches - for that read the first game against the Jaguares in particular and also the Reds match that followed - but from the vantage point of the Newlands press box it was easy to see why opposition coach Robbie Fleck in the build-up likened the Sharks’ defence to that of the Crusaders.
The Stormers were disrupted and made a lot of errors that may not have been made had they started with a more settled team, but they were not helped by the pressure created by the Sharks’ defensive linespeed. Of course rush defence is now common to most teams but the Sharks do get it better than most and it should hardly be a secret that they will be relying heavily on their D when they go to Canberra.
They will need more than that though if they are to progress in the play-off phase, and what was also abundantly clear from the vantage point of a Newlands press box that is perched on the 10th floor, and therefore offers a good view of shape, is that the Sharks when they aren’t able to physically bully their opponents into submission are very limited on attack.
The Sharks’ one-dimensional approach and conservative game-plan - do they have a plan other than hoping the off-loads will stick when in the right areas of the field? - is particularly alarming when you consider the firepower they have out wide.
There isn’t an outside back apart from the highly promising Aphelele Fassi who isn’t a Springbok and yet there is so little attacking shape for them to play off.
Well, there was another back on the field against the Stormers who isn’t a Bok, and that takes us back to Smith. Coach Du Preez spoke in the build-up to the game of Smith’s potential and it was clear for all to see in a game where he provided plenty of X-factor and was frequently the one thorn in a Stormers defensive system that was generally not tested until the end.
Du Preez would probably argue that his son needs to play against the Brumbies because of his experience. But if Curwin Bosch is passed fit and so is Fassi, in which case they simply have to start as the flyhalf and fullback respectively, including Smith’s X-factor as the flyhalf/fullback cover on the bench would make a lot of sense.
That would mean no place in the match 23 for Robert junior but if you look at potential impact value, based on the evidence of the Newlands match, surely there is no comparison between him and Smith. If there is a player who can come on and provide that little bit of magic in the last quarter that can swing a tight match, it is Smith.
The Sharks team for the quarterfinal will be named today.