The Currie Cup Champs played their first game of 2009 without 10 front-line players and it showed. John Plumtree’s second stringers were comprehensively beaten 29-15.
If this a sign of things to come, Sharks fans are in for a long season. The Durban outfit showed neither the skill, nor the grunt to overcome a game Western Province team at Newlands on Saturday. Even with ten Springboks away, the Sharks were expected to win or at least dominate in the scrums. Given the torrid conditions, the plan would surely have been to kick for territory and maul it up close. But it was Province who played the percentages better and showed greater respect for the atrocious weather. Their second try was a classic example. Instead clearing from the base of a scrum in their half, the Sharks elected to run. Jean Deysel fell awkwardly and a turned-over ball saw Sireli Naqelevuki run in for an easy score.
The game got off to the worst possible start with Chris Jack charging down Rory Kockett’s attempted clearance and scoring in the corner – a mere 20 seconds into the game. Kockett obviously felt that the kicking responsibilities were his, given the rookie outside him; but it was madness to try and clear under such pressure, especially with the 2 metre Jack looming. Kockett then made amends by knocking over a handful of penalties and for a while the Sharks seemed to be back in it. The rain pounded down relentlessly, nullifying each team’s chances. But as soon as Province got out of first gear and started stringing some promising runs together they looked streets ahead of their toothless counterparts.
The battle of the flyhalves was always going to be won by Willem De Waal. The wily Province flyhalf is made for games like these, so it was expected that the Sharks would try dominate upfront.
Instead the much-vaunted pack were pushed off their ball on numerous occasions, lost a heel against the head and were completely dominated at the rucks and mauls. The fact that the referee was especially liberal towards Province at ruck time does not excuse the shocking protection the Sharks gave their ball carrier. Once Western Province gained ascendancy at the rucks the game was effectively over as a contest.
As for our scrum, I have to ask: Has it really got to the point when we are forced to field three featherweights all at the same time? The trio of Daniel, Botes and Burden left us more than a little underpowered at the set pieces despite the Sharks being renowned for the better tight five. The Craig Burden experiment, in particular, has yet to convince me. The ex-winger tries manfully but brings no physical authority in the tight and doesn’t redeem himself enough in the loose to warrant a starting berth. As dour a player as Skipper Badenhorst is, he probably would have been a safer bet to start with.
I will resist at this stage the urge to slate our backline because truth be told, they were never really in the game. Young débutante Guy Cronje was thrown in the deep-end and attempted a few runs but was easily overpowered at the tackle point conceding possession nearly every time. It’s worth backing the rookie though because all our other alternatives at 10 are frankly rubbish. But it certainly won’t hurt the youngster to start consuming copious amounts of steak and creatine either. Another player I wouldn’t mind seeing get more time is Zuks Vulindlu. The lively winger always looks a few millimetres away from doing something brilliant so it’s impossible to tell if he’s actually any good or not. I suspect he doesn’t have the intuitive genius of JP Pietersen or the support play of Odwa Ndungane but still, the poor oke deserves some time with the ball.
All in all, John Plumtree’s men have lots of work to do. It’s clear that the scrum in particular will need to improve in leaps in bounds if the team has any chance of being a force in the Currie Cup.
Being the first game, it’s best to remain open-minded about our chances. Still, the performance dished up on Saturday was a worry for any supporter.