With the news that Mike Rhodes has been released to join the Lions, the Sharks simply have to act fast to retain the services of Justin Downey, or risk being caught out in the loose-forward department come next year’s Super 15.
Downey, who was released to join Griquas on loan for the second round of the Currie Cup, emerged as one of the stalwarts of the Kimberley side’s campaign – as this analysis of loose forward statistics throughout the competition shows, there wasn’t an open-side flanker in the Currie Cup who performed better on defence than Downey did. His average of over 20 tackles a game was simply out of this world – it was also nicely double the amount pulled off by any of the Sharks’ regular open-sides.
Downey’s real strength, though, is his versatility – he has regularly played in all three positions in the back row for the Sharks XV and College Rovers (as well as Griquas, where he alternated between 6 and 7) and at 1.91m and 105kg is pretty much the ideal in-between size. He can be used as an openside, together with a big 7 like Willem Alberts and a smaller number 8 like Keegan Daniel, or can add pace at 7 without sacrificing too much bulk – as would happen if Daniel and Jacques Botes were played in tandem. While John Plumtree has been reluctant to give Downey game time with the senior side, preferring Rhodes, the experiment of sending him to Griquas has shown that he has all the skills and aptitude necessary to mix it with the big boys.
Whatever Plumtree was looking for in Rhodes, he clearly didn’t see enough of it to warrant extending the big man’s contract and one can only hope that he’ll now be big enough to admit that Downey should have been given more opportunities – and rectify that mistake. Skholiwe Ndlovu is another player who was preferred to Downey in the squad this year, but he too is being cut loose, leaving the Sharks with a definite loose forward spot up for grabs in the contracted group. With Lubabalo Mthembu the only junior loose forward to have a confirmed senior contract for next year (and he’ll be playing for the National Sevens team until May anyway) the Sharks need to make sure they retain Downey to ensure they have at least 6 contracted loosies for the Super 15.
Griquas are hot on Downey’s heels, of course and would love to retain his services on a more permanent basis, with the Cheetahs understandably keen to draft him straight into their own Super 15 squad. Downey’s a Durban lad at heart, though and I’m sure he would prefer to play for the Sharks, as long the coaching staff can rectify the damage that they’ve done over the last two seasons and give him a commitment about meaningful game time in the 2011 season.Tweet