Sharks coach Dick Muir has some interesting selections to make ahead of the Super 14 semifinal against the Waratahs in Sydney next Saturday.
His rampant team crushed the Chiefs 47-25 in Durban last Saturday to set up a semifinal against the ‘Tahs.
Rugby 365 reports that Muir now faces some welcome selection problems, with most of his players close to returning to fitness, and no clear indications as to his most potent combinations.
The expansive running game the Sharks unveiled against the Chiefs has brought a new dimension to their armoury, and will have thrown all pre-existing ideas about the first-choice fifteen into disarray.
The Sharks have the option of using Tongan import Epi Taione in the play-off match after he completed his six-match ban for headbutting.
The Sharks and Taione have an interesting dynamic at the moment. The big Tongan utility player only had 25 minutes of Super 14 game time for the Durban franchise, before his gross indiscretion against the Hurricanes earned him a SANZAR citing which resulted in a lengthy ban.
It also incurred the wrath of Sharks CEO Brian van Zyl, who tore up Taione’s pay-as-you-play contract.
But it seems that Taione has been forgiven, and he could yet make a positive contribution to the Sharks in the play-offs.
Coach Muir will have to decide between Taione and AJ Venter for the blindside flank berth.
Another selection choice for Muir will come in the front row. Muir will have to pick one of two Springbok props, Jannie Du Plessis or BJ Botha, to wear the No.3 jersey on Saturday.
Botha missed the Chiefs match, but has been included in the tour group, which indicates that he is close to returning to action.
More posers await in the backline.
Frans Steyn damaged a rib cartilage in the Sharks’ 33-14 win against the Cheetahs two weekends ago. Steyn was also absent from the win over the Chiefs, but his injury should clear up in time for him to be available for semifinal selection.
The talented Springbok back has floated around in the Sharks backline this year, and has played at fullback, centre and flyhalf. Steyn has expressed on occasion that flyhalf is his preferred position, but the fact remains that Ruan Pienaar did a fine job at pivot on Saturday.
Muir’s selection at flyhalf will be crucial come Saturday. Picking Steyn at 10 could be a risk, especially after Pienaar’s fine display against the Chiefs.
The coach certainly has yet interesting puzzle to solve in midfield, after the combination of Ruan Pienaar, Adrian Jacobs and Brad Barritt really got the Sharks backline buzzing on Saturday.
Muir will have to make a big call with respect to the centre pairing as well, as the competition in that area has heated up significantly with another Springbok, forgotten man Waylon Murray, also in contention.
Captain Johan Muller came through the match after recovering from a calf injury that kept him out for a few weeks.
Meanwhile, Muir has admitted that he should have instructed the Sharks to play more expansively earlier in the Super 14 tournament.
Muir was a relieved man after the result and took much satisfaction in the fact that the Sharks made the semifinal, considering that they almost made a hash of it over the closing weeks.
“It just shows that maybe we were too conservative at times and I’ll take the blame for our conservative style,” he conceded.
“Maybe we overplayed that card, that conditions did not warrant an exciting approach, but we certainly have a group of players that can play, and against the Chiefs, it was nice to see them scoring long-distance tries. The passing and defence was outstanding as well.”
Muir looked back at the season, and explained that he chose the conservative style of play, because the team had lost some experience with the departure of key players such as Butch James and John Smit.
“This is such an amazing tournament,” he added. “You go through different phases and have to adapt, make bold calls and move on. I’m not embarrassed to say we were too conservative at times.
“We lost some really experienced personnel at the end of last season and the way we played probably didn’t allow players to grow as well as we would have liked, but it was good to see their confidence in this match.”
Muir, who will leave the Sharks at the end of this Super 14 campaign to join the Springbok management team as assistant coach, paid tribute to two young players who have had to adapt to new roles, according to the official Sharks website.
At one stage Ruan Pienaar was the incumbent at scrumhalf, but such was the form of import Rory Kockott who himself had to work hard to make the No.9 jersey his own, so Pienaar found himself sidelined.
But the injury to Frederic Michalak necessitated some reshuffling Pienaar certainly showed against the Chiefs that he had a big contribution to make at flyhalf.
“Ruan has come in and done an amazing job,” said Muir. “It’s the quality of the player, he’s so versatile and so dedicated making sure he gets the tackles in despite criticism over his defence. He has worked incredibly hard on his game.
“Rory is a nuggety player, and showed how difficult he is to play against.”
With the closing stages of his Sharks coaching stint fast approaching, Muir looked back on his tenure and wished his successors well. He also reiterated his desire to end on a high, and win some silverware with the Sharks.
“Looking back I am pleased that the whole group has grown,” he said.
“We have an unbelievable management team and great players. I probably didn’t give them enough respect in allowing them to express themselves, but for the group to continue to grow, this is the right time for Grant Bashford and John Plumtree to take over.”
“We have unfinished business. It will only be complete if we bring the silverware home.”Tweet