You don’t have to spend too long studying the latest Sharks team list to figure out where they are much stronger now than they were when they last played the Waratahs in a league match in Sydney last month.
Gavin Rich writes for Superrugby that whereas when they lost 25-10, and were comprehensively outplayed in the second half, the Sharks were still persisting with their small two fetcher flank combination of Jacques Botes and Keegan Daniel.
You can play one of those players in the back row, and they did play together quite effectively against the Blues in Durban earlier in the competition, but generally against a physical forward combination like the Waratahs are, such a make-up tends to come short.
It was if the penny dropped for the Sharks management in that game, for since then the Sharks have persisted with a loose-trio which includes one fetcher on the openside in the form of Botes, and he has been one of the stars of the Sharks resurgence over the past few weeks, and a heavier, tighter forward in either AJ Venter or Jean Deysel on the other flank.
The loose trio has had a better balance to it since the switch, and in Saturday’s Vodacom Super 14 semifinal not only will Venter start, but Deysel and big Tongan Epi Tiaone will back him up and join the fray later in the game. The Sharks see the addition of this bulk as an essential if they are to stop the physical Waratahs pack, particularly their back-row, who dominated last time the teams met.
Not only though is it in the loose-forwards that the Sharks have more bulk this time. Skipper Johann Muller is back to lead the side after he had to sit out the last clash at the last minute because of an ankle injury. The Springbok has made a good recovery since then and will definitely add some of the substance that was missing from the Sharks foward effort last time.
While it is at forward that the Sharks look most obviously stronger, there have also been some key adjustments at the back that could swing this one in their favour. The last time they were in Sydney it was the occasion of Frederic Michalak’s unfortunate injury. The Frenchman was forced out early in the game and later had to abandon his Super 14 adventure.
When Ruan Pienaar came on to replace him it was the first time he had been used as a flyhalf by the Sharks in quite a while. Expecting him to just adjust to the position at such short notice and in such a big game was a big ask.
But it is different now, for Pienaar is settling into the position and is gaining with confidence every week, with many critics feeling that his performance in the pivot position last week was the catalyst for the Sharks’ finest backline performance of the season.
Pienaar’s form has had a positive effect on the other players among the backs too, and while JP Pietersen still hasn’t scored a try this season, he is starting to look sharp again and is bound to be a factor in the playoff games.
The backs are the one area where the Sharks do appear to have a clear edge over a Waratahs team which, when it comes to the back, do tend to rely quite heavily on big Lote Tuqiri and the promising flyhalf Kurtley Beale.
The only change the Sharks have made to the side that hammered the Chiefs last week comes at inside centre, where many would consider Brad Barritt unfortunate to make way for the prodigious but at times unpredictable game-breaking skills of the gifted Francois Steyn. Again, this might be another area where the Sharks look more settled than the last time they played the Waratahs.
Sharks team: Stefan Terblanche, Odwa Ndungane, Adrian Jacobs, Francois Steyn, JP Pietersen, Ruan Pienaar, Rory Kockott, Ryan Kankowski, AJ Venter, Jacques Botes, Johann Muller (captain), Steven Sykes, Jannie du Plessis, Bismarck du Plessis, Tendai Mtawirara.
Reserves: Craig Burden, Deon Carstens, Albert van den Berg, Jean Deysel, Epi Taione, Brad Barritt, Waylon Murray.Tweet