The two big coastal unions, the Sharks and Vodacom Western Province, will be hoping that the return of several Springboks for this weekend’s round of Absa Currie Cup matches will help get their respective campaigns back on track.
Gavin Rich writes on Superrugby that both teams lost last weekend, and while WP’s losing sequence has lasted two weeks now and the Sharks only one, in truth the Sharks have not looked at all convincing this entire domestic season.
Indeed, when you talk about the Sharks the conversation is a bit like the one we kept hearing during the Vodacom Super 14 season — “they are too good a team to continue struggling, they will come right soon”.
It is debatable that they came right at all during the Super 14, and the long sequence of matches where they won when not playing well gave away towards the end of the competition to a sequence of defeats.
It was only two home games right at the end of the league phase against relatively weak sides that saw the Sharks clinch a semifinal place that was considered almost certain in mid-season.
So what is the Sharks’ problem, and what is WP’s problem? In a word, it might come down to confidence. Three weeks ago Province were riding the crest of a wave and could do no wrong as they came from behind to beat the Blue Bulls and then saw off the Vodacom Cheetahs in a wet-weather game without really raising a sweat.
But they may have underestimated the Wildeklawer Griquas in Kimberley. When they came a cropper there, that was the first dent to their confidence.
The freaky flat-lining approach of the Valke unsettled them in the early stages in Brakpan last week, and against that style of play there were problems with the WP defensive alignment.
Yet heading towards half time, WP seemed to have recovered and settled and it seemed they had everything in hand. Had a PJ Vermeulen try that would have made it 22-14 been awarded, WP would probably have won by 20 points.
It wasn’t awarded and, instead of taking control, Ross Skeate was yellow carded and in the period he was off Province conceded three tries.
WP, facing a massive catch-up job, saw all their confidence disappear, and for the rest of the match nothing went right for them, and by the end of the game they were a demoralised team.
The good news for them for this weekend’s match against the Boland Cavaliers at Newlands is that their team is quite different, with the return of several players who have not lost in WP or Stormers jerseys since March. Peter Grant (if he plays), Schalk Brits, Brian Mujati and Bolla Conradie will bring back some of the confidence, and as Newlands is starting to turn into a bit of a fortress for the premier Cape team, the smart money should be on them getting back on track in resounding fashion with a comfortable victory.
Predicting what is going to happen with the Sharks is more difficult because their problem is not quite as easily diagnosed as the WP one. Their players did look down on confidence in Bloemfontein last week, where admittedly they were up against a strong team desperate for a win in their first home game for quite a while, but there were also times when they seemed to lack direction.
There are times when the Sharks look as if they are between coaches and coaching styles, which maybe they are. Well though previous coach Dick Muir and John Plumtree get on and work together, and it was a union that worked wonderfully during 2007, when the Sharks won the Super 14, it needs to be remembered that both have very different approaches.
Plumtree is big on structure, whereas Muir is very much a heads up coach, meaning that he likes to let the players play the situation in front of them.
For a while now the Sharks have been a bit like the current Springboks in that they appear to be not quite sure what is expected of them and, as a result, they have lost the clinical aspects that they were so good at last year.
It may though take just one game for it all to come back, and the Sharks have also had a ridiculous injury record so far in the competition. With Ryan Kankowski returning to No 8 and Ruan Pienaar also in the team, be it at scrumhalf or flyhalf, perhaps some of the old direction will return, which could spell problems for the Lions.
If the Sharks do win now, this could be the turning point of the season for them, and with more Boks destined to return later on, they may pick up the momentum they have been lacking. Durbanites will be living in hope…
Vodacom Cheetahs v Valke Bloemfontein 19:10
Prediction: Cheetahs to win by 10.
Vodacom WP v Boland Cavaliers Cape Town 15:00
Prediction: WP to win by 20.
The Sharks v Xerox Lions Durban 17:05
Prediction: Sharks to win by 5.