A new halfback combination in Charl McLeod and Pat Lambie would have lent the Sharks some much-needed stability in the crunch semi-final in Christchurch, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Jake White has often said that his strongest attribute is his ability to identify talent and select winning combinations. There are numerous examples that substantiate this statement.
When he was at the helm of the Springboks during the 2007 World Cup, White moved flanker-cum-lock Danie Rossouw to No 8, and backed the then 20-year-old Frans Steyn to start at No 12 in the injury-enforced absence of Jean de Villiers. They were selections that proved inspired.
Apart from serving as a world-class lineout option and bringing some grunt to that No 8 position, Rossouw made a try-saving tackle on England winger Mark Cueto in the final. Steyn kicked the long-range penalty that clinched that game and the title itself.
White has got it right this season by backing Steyn at No 10 ahead of Fred Zeilinga and Tim Swiel. His decision to play S’bura Sithole has been vindicated, as has the reintroduction of Tonderai Chavhanga, a player who scored six tries for White in a Test against Uruguay in 2005.
Then there’s been the experiment with Lwazi Mvovo at fullback, a selection that raised a few eyebrows when it was first proposed. Few will doubt that Mvovo has since developed into a useful No 15 option.
The Sharks have the game plan to win this weekend's match and indeed the Super Rugby title. In this respect, they need players capable of implementing the territory-based approach effectively.
In some instances White has got his selections right for the semi-final, and in one instance he may have taken an unnecessary gamble.
Steyn was asked to do a job at No 10 in the absence of Lambie. His physicality in the first-receiver channel was a plus, as was his formidable line kicking.
In the past two weeks, Steyn has kicked accurately for goal and accumulated as many as 35 points. And yet, it has not surprised me to see Lambie reinstated at No 10 and Steyn shifted to No 12 for this week's battle.
It’s a combination that inspires confidence. It’s a combination that will thrive if provided with a platform, and it will encourage White to know that the Sharks' set pieces are currently firing.
Lambie and Steyn can be dangerous on attack, but they can also contribute with the boot and win the territorial battle. The latter is all-important in a knockout clash.
Going into this game, the quandary was whom to back as the link between the pack and that 10-12 combination. Cobus Reinach is a game breaker, and the Sharks may not have won that league match in Christchurch if not for the scrumhalf’s individual brilliance.
But while Reinach has produced some breathtaking touches and finishes this season, he has also been guilty of far too many errors. His most recent performance against the Highlanders was laden with mistakes, and he was eventually subbed in the 68th minute.
The Crusaders will pose a greater challenge at the set pieces than the Highlanders did at Kings Park. Where the Highlanders and Crusaders are similar is that they are quick to punish poor kicks, and will turn counter-attacking chances into points at the other end of the park.
Reinach kicked poorly at Kings Park last week, and made a few bad decisions with ball in hand. These mistakes often undid the good work done by the Sharks forwards, and at times placed Steyn under pressure.
Charl McLeod is no Fourie du Preez, but is the stronger kicker of the two Sharks scrumhalves. He has more experience, as well as a reputation for fronting in the knockout games, if you will remember the game-shaping contributions he made in the 2010 and 2013 Currie Cup finals.
And yet, White has opted to stick with Reinach. The semi-final game in Christchurch will be akin to a Test match, in that attacking space will be minimal and physicality and line kicking accuracy will be crucial. The margin for error will be negligible. Starting Reinach is an unnecessary gamble.
The odds are against the Sharks travelling to Christchurch and beating the Crusaders in a play-off match. The Sharks did well to edge the Highlanders this past Saturday, but have to more clinical against a Crusaders team that has a reputation for punishing mistakes. The pressure is now on Reinach to produce a more measured performance.
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