Bismarck du Plessis's performance at hooker could prove the difference when the Sharks meet the Cheetahs at Kings Park on Saturday, writes BRENTON CHELIN.
The Sharks were the front-runners for much of the 2014 Vodacom Super Rugby season, before running out of puff and exiting rather meekly in Christchurch.
By that stage, Du Plessis had racked up the minutes – over 1,200 of them – and the exertions started to show for the Springboks. 'Bissie' was below his bullocking best for the Boks during the subsequent Rugby Championship and end-of-year tour, where his place in the side came under pressure from Adriaan Strauss.
However, Du Plessis seems to have benefited from the Sharks' low-key buildup to the new season. A few chuckas against some local club sides and a glamour match in the south of France has been the gist of their preparations. On the evidence of the 40 minutes he turned in against Toulon, the approach has done Du Plessis a world of good.
In trying conditions, he was colossal at the breakdown, along with the ever-improving Marcell Coetzee. Together they should cause endless problems for a Cheetahs side still without their breakdown specialist, Heinrich Brüssouw. Add in the loss of Adriaan Strauss, and the Cheetahs seem woefully outmatched at the breakdown area.
Naka Drotské has spent the off-season addressing the issues in defence that saw them ship more tries and points than any other side during the 2014 season. Pre-season losses to the Bulls and Stormers, however, suggest there's still some way to go.
The Sharks will have a couple of debutants on show, with Mouritz Botha, Renaldo Bothma, and the returning Waylon Murray handed starts. It's in the coaching box, though, where there's been the most upheaval. Gone is Jake White, replaced by Gary Gold and an expansive new game plan.
The Cheetahs are not without changes of their own. The loss of Strauss and fellow Bok Trevor Nyakane has considerably weakened their front row. Among the new faces, Joe Pietersen will start at flyhalf with Michael van der Spuy outside him. The two breakout players of 2014 – Lood de Jager and Oupa Mohoje – will add some grunt up front.
With unfavourable weather expected in Durban this weekend, the Sharks' new expansive approach might have to wait. Matches between these two have often been close affairs, as reflected in the scrappy 19-8 home win in the corresponding fixture last season.
The Sharks might have to turn to the set piece and their defensive characteristics to grind out a victory here, with Du Plessis poised to play a crucial role for his side.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: Sharks 8, Cheetahs 6
In Durban: Sharks 4, Cheetahs 3
DU PLESSIS'S STATS THAT MATTER
17 – The number of turnovers he made in last year's Super Rugby tournament (Rank 6)
1209 – The number of minutes he played (Rank 39)
81 – The number of carries he made (Rank 105)
Source: Vodacom Rugby Stats App
Sharks – 15 SP Marais, 14 S’bura Sithole, 13 Waylon Murray, 12 Heimar Williams, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Patrick Lambie, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Tera Mtembu, 7 Renaldo Bothma, 6 Marcell Coetzee, 5 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 4 Mouritz Botha, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis (c), 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Subs: 16 Kyle Cooper, 17 Dale Chadwick, 18 Matt Stevens, 19 Marco Wentzel, 20 Jean Deysel, 21 Conrad Hoffmann, 22 Fred Zeilinga, 23 Odwa Ndungane.
Cheetahs – 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Clayton Blommetjies, 13 Francois Venter, 12 Michael van der Spuy, 11 Raymond Rhule, 10 Joe Petersen, 9 Sarel Pretorius, 8 Willie Britz, 7 Oupa Mohoje, 6 Jean Cook, 5 Francois Uys (c), 4 Lodewyk de Jager, 3 Coenie Oosthuizen, 2 Torsten van Jaarsveld, 1 Danie Minnie.
Subs: 16 Stephan Coetzee, 17 BG Uys, 18 Maks van Dyk, 19 Carl Wegner, 20 Boom Prinsloo, 21 Tian Meyer, 22 Willie du Plessis, 23 Cornal Hendricks.
Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images