The Sharks coaches have said, on a number of occasions, that Friday’s match against the Blue Bulls would mark the start of a period of continuity, leading into the Currie Cup knock-outs. That after employing a successful rotation policy for the first eight games of the campaign. A number of factors complicate this plan, however.
I’m sure I’m not alone in wondering exactly how you go about picking a first choice side, given the sheer number of players that have put their hands up over the course of the campaign. While it should be relatively easy in some cases, other positions – such as the second row, loose forward combination and centre pairing – really could go any of a number of ways. Further adding flies to this already buzzing pot of ointment is the anticipated return of seven players from the national squad next week, thus making it rather likely that there will be further changes ahead of the Western Province match too.
I’d argue that the front row and halfback combinations are as settled as they’re’ going to get – although obviously here there will be change when the big guns get back. Dale Chadwick, Kyle Cooper and Wiehahn Herbst have proved the best “alternate” front row over the course of the competition, while Charl McLeod and Fred Zeilinga deserve their halfback positions based on form over the duration of the campaign. This latter pairing may just be somewhat surprising, given that they possibly started the season as second-choice picks.
With young Stephan Lewies having acquitted himself rather well in the number 5 jersey on Friday, there’s a pretty good chance that he’ll keep the spot this week, given the lack of competition in that position. It’s anybody’s guess, however, whether the coaches consider Edwin Hewitt or Peet Marais to be the front runner for the number 4 jersey. Likewise, the wings more or less pick themselves, with Lwazi Mvovo and Odwa Ndungane pretty sure to continue their stints at 11 and 14 respectively.
Expect Jacques Botes, Jean Deysel and Keegan Daniel to form the loose trio, with the exact jersey numbers still unclear (although Daniel must surely have done enough to hang on to his favoured number 8 for another week). Of the alternates, Tera Mtembu is perhaps the unluckiest man to lose out on a starting spot, while Justin Downey and Brynard Stander have also been good when asked to step in. Lingering doubts about the effectiveness of the two smaller men in tandem won’t prevent the coaches picking them, with both Daniel (100 Currie Cup caps) and Botes (join-most Currie Cup caps) set for milestones at Loftus.
Few would argue that Heimar Williams and Tim Whitehead look the better centre pair, but let’s not forget that it was Whitehead and Ludik who started off the season in possession. One really battles to imagine a “first choice” team that doesn’t have Ludik’s name somewhere in it, so the only real question is whether Williams has done enough to force the coaches to move Ludik back to fullback, where he must surely still be close to first choice.
The emergence of SP Marais as a major attacking threat, though, puts a big spanner in those works. While not as safe as Ludik on defence, there is simply no disputing that deadly attacking edge that the former Kings player brings to the Sharks’ backline play and again it’s hard to imagine the coaches opting to leave him out. One possible alternative is to pick Marais at wing, in place of Ndungane, but again, a player of Odwa’s experience and big game mettle is unlikely to be omitted as the competition nears its business end.
If I were to take a punt at what the coaches might do for this weekend, my line-up would look like this:
Sharks (possible): 15 SP Marais, 14 Odwa Ndungane, 13 Louis Ludik, 12 Tim Whitehead, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Fred Zeilinga, 9 Charl McLeod, 8 Keegan Daniel, 7 Jean Deysel, 6 Jacques Botes, 5 Stephan Lewies, 4 Edwin Hewitt, 3 Wiehahn Herbst, 2 Kyle Cooper, 1 Dale Chadwick
16 Mondea Hadebe, 17 Danie Mienie, 18 Peet Marais, 19 Tera Mtembu, 20 Cobus Reinach, 21 Butch James, 22 Heimar Williams