When it comes to the 2008 Absa Currie Cup title, are the Sharks pretenders or contenders?
Saturday’s massive clash with the Cheetahs will go a long way towards answering that question because, if the Sharks can record consecutive wins over probably the strongest team in the competition, the Bulls, and then the defending champions (who also happen to be the Sharks’ bogey team), then they are probably the real deal this year.
Mike Greenaway writes in The Mercury that his gut feeling is that there is something different about the Sharks this Currie Cup. They are a very tight-knit, hungry team and my prediction is that they will go on to win the cup this year if they beat the Cheetahs on Saturday.
Defeating the Free Staters will prove that the Sharks have the requisite hunger to go all the way – beating top teams every now and again is not that difficult, but doing it week in, week out is what makes champions – while on a practical note it will entrench them at the top of the table and in pole position to host a semifinal and possibly a final.
It is much easier to win a title from the No 1 spot in the final standings – the Sharks’ Super 14 final defeat last year notwithstanding.
After the Cheetahs, the Sharks finish with the Valke (away), Lions (away) and finally Griquas (home).
That Lions game will be tricky, of course, but it is worth noting that the Sharks’ chief rivals for the No 1 spot, the Bulls, still have to play the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein.
If the Sharks indeed win, they will end an incredible run of defeats to the Cheetahs in the Currie Cup, dating back to Kevin Putt’s win in Bloemfontein in 2003 .
It is a run that is due to end, and Cheetahs coach Naka Drostke was not bluffing when he said his team came to Durban as underdogs.
Drostke’s team is as strong as ever in the forwards, but the back division has lost three wings to injury; and there was a late blow when experienced flyhalf Chris Rossouw failed a fitness test. The injuries have forced the coach to pick flank Kabamba Floors on the wing.
The Cheetahs’ loose trio is strong, the tight five workmanlike, and, in centre Robert Ebersohn, the Cheetahs have one of the brightest prospects.
Still, if you look at the Sharks team that John Plumtree has picked, and you add the form they are in and the team spirit fuelling them, it is hard to see the Sharks losing this one in front of a big Absa Stadium turnout.
The team that beat the Bulls has lost Bradley Barritt and Alistair Hargreaves to injury, but has regained Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira and Adrian Jacobs, although they are both restricted to roles off the bench, possibly because they are still a little tender from their exacting duties in the Tri-Nations.
Plumtree has moved Francois Steyn from 13 to 12 to replace Barritt and brought Waylon Murray in from the wing to his old position of 13.
Steyn is now back at his Rugby World Cup position and it will be interesting to see how he goes running off the in-form flyhalf Fred Michalak. If the Frenchman can thread Steyn at full tilt into some gaps, there could be devastating consequences.
J P Pietersen, on the bench last week, starts in Murray’s spot. Bismarck du Plessis reclaims his No 2 jersey from Skipper Badenhorst, who has been one of the unsung heroes of the Sharks’ revival.
In the second row, Steven Sykes comes in for Hargreaves.
In a highly pleasing development, No 8 Ryan Kankowski is at last over his clavicle injury and is on the bench.Tweet