The Sharks travel to Ellis Park this Saturday to take on the Auto & General Lions in round 5 of the Vodacom Super 14 2008. Expect a titanic struggle up front, especially at the breakdown, with the Sharks to ease away later on as their superior pace and skill prove decisive.
Both sides pride themselves on their strength in the scrum and on the drive; Lions loosehead Heinke van der Merwe is a scrumming machine and probably the strongest number 1 anywhere in the competition. Newcomer Ross Geldenhuys has been winning fans playing on the other side of the front row, combining good scrum technique with a surprising turn of pace and a good set of hands. They come up against a Sharks front row including Springbok BJ Botha, seldom bested at this level and livewire Zimbabwean Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira. The Beast is a competent performer in the scrum, but it’s his huge work rate in the loose and on defence that sets him apart. Lions hooker Willie Wepener is looking the part at this level, but he is up against Sharks tyro Bismarck du Plessis this week, a contest he is unlikely to win. The Sharks appear to hold the upper hand in the second row too, with 50-test veteran Albert van den Berg and captain Johann Muller likely to compete well against the less experienced Lions duo of Anton van Zyl and Gerhard Mostert, particularly in the lineouts.
There’ll be points aplenty proved amongst the loose forwards. Joe van Niekerk has seen his crown slip in recent years, while young Ryan Kankowski is the rising star (and Bok incumbent) at number 8. Both will be keen to demonstrate their pace and skill with ball in hand. Sharks flankers Jacques Botes and Keegan Daniel will both play the game at frenetic pace, putting pressure on the Lions halfbacks and trying to force the turnovers. Against them will be the experienced Baywatch Grobbelaar on the ground and the grafter Ernst Joubert, who prefers to play the link-man role.
Rory Kockott and Janno Vermaak are the up-and-coming young scrumhalves in the competition and their personal rivalry should make for a fascinating game within a game. Both sides have opted for direct flyhalves, in Francois Steyn and Jaco van Schalkwyk and the prospect of the resulting feast of running rugby is a mouthwatering one indeed. Let’s hope both sides keep ball in hand as much as possible rather than trying to kick everything they get. The Sharks centres haven’t fired on attack so far this year, yet the Lions will find that the old firm of Brad Barritt and Waylon Murray are rock-solid on defence, particularly with Steyn inside them. Walter Venter is a newcomer at this level, but Jaco Pretorius on his outside is a Springbok and the pair of them are sure to be full of running. They will need their full box of tricks; the Sharks have only conceded 4 tries so far this season, fewer than any other team in the competition. The Lions have let in 14.
The Sharks appear to hold the trump card in the back three, though; Lions wingers Dusty Noble (himself a former Sharks colt) and Rayno Benjamin have looked out of sorts so far this year, whereas their opponents, Odwa Ndungane and JP Pietersen are far more solid, particularly under the high ball. Expect the Sharks to launch an up-and-under or two and see how the Lions pacemen hold their ground with a full complement of Sharks chasers bearing down on them. Pietersen in particular will look to put in a few solid hits on his cousin Noble, all in the name of healthy family rivalry. Stefan Terblanche is the more experienced fullback, with an educated boot that knows how to probe the corners. His opposite number, Louis Ludik, is a star in the making and devastating when joining the line at pace.
Casting an eye over the replacement benches, though, one can clearly see why the Sharks should win this one at a canter. The Lions have a bunch of youngsters and journeymen in numbers 16 through 22. The Sharks, in comparison, have four Springboks in AJ Venter, Jannie du Plessis, Ruan Pienaar and Adi Jacobs, as well as a 50-test French veteran in Fred Michalak. Jean Deysel and Craig Burden complete the quota of impact players that are sure to wrap up the match for the men from Durban.
The Lions will play out of their skins in this one and push the Sharks in the early stages, but the Sharks 22 just looks that much better and they’ll take this one by 10 points or more.Tweet