Pollard primed to slay Sharks

The Sharks' pack and defence will be under enormous pressure when they host the red-hot Vodacom Bulls at Kings Park this Saturday, writes JON CARDINELLI.

It will be do or die in the Shark Tank this Saturday. Not for the Bulls, who currently lead the South African conference, but certainly for the beleaguered Sharks. They really can't afford to drop another game at home.

This was always expected to be a massive game in the context of the South African conference. Unfortunately, through a series of suspensions and injuries, the Sharks are without the players needed to excel in a game of this nature.

Springboks Pat Lambie, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Ryan Kankowski and JP Pietersen are all currently injured. Physical talismans like Bismarck du Plessis and Frans Steyn are unavailable due to suspension.

But then a lack of game-breaking personnel is not their only problem. The Sharks' defence has lacked grunt and accuracy in 2015, and showed few signs of consistency in the recent battle against the Lions. While there were moments in that game when the line survived a sustained assault by the Lions, the missed tackle stat at full-time (35) suggests that the Sharks still have a long way to go in addressing the problem.

This bodes badly for a meeting with the Bulls. Last week, the Pretoria side put six tries past the Reds. They stampeded to a 43-22 victory despite missing a clutch of key players. The majority of those stars will be back for the crunch derby at Kings Park.

Victor Matfield is still on the sidelines, and so the Sharks will back their lineout to inflict some damage. Much has been made about the return of Beast Mtawarira and Jannie du Plessis, but that Sharks front row could really have used Bismarck for this clash. The Bulls scrum will be boosted by the return of Adriaan Strauss as well as the selection of Marcel van der Merwe at No 3, and the visitors should be expected to hold their own at this set piece.

This means that the collisions and breakdowns will be all the more important. Willem Alberts was in an abrasive mood last week, and Marcell Coetzee has been good for the Sharks this season despite the collective's struggles. And yet, the Sharks' chances of dominating the point of contact may depend on Alberts' ability to last the full 80. If he leaves the field after 40 minutes, as he did last week, then the Sharks don't have another like-for-like player who can lead the physical charge.

If the Bulls' forwards succeed in providing their backs with any sort of platform, then Handré Pollard will come into play. Pollard has been superb in front of goal this year, but it's his ability with ball in hand that will have the Sharks worried.

Director of rugby Gary Gold said as much to SARugbymag.co.za earlier this week. If the Sharks pack doesn't meet the challenge of the Bulls, and if the Sharks don't succeed in limiting Pollard's attacking space, then the Durban side could be in for another long and painful evening.

The Bulls' attacking threat, of course, isn't limited to Pollard. The flyhalf will look to create opportunities for a multitalented backline that includes Bjorn Basson, Francois Hougaard and the promising Jesse Kriel.

The Bulls will also be favourites to win the kicking game. The Sharks have lacked accuracy in terms of their tactical play this season, and will be susceptible now that Lambie and Steyn are not available. The Bulls have the players in their back-three to punish any poor kicks. While the Bulls won't look to play expansively from the set pieces, we should expect the likes of Hougaard and Kriel to make the most of any counter-attacking chances.

If the game doesn't open up in the second half, and it is down to the goal-kickers to decide the contest, the Bulls will have the edge.

Pollard can win a match via a drop goal or a well-struck penalty, as we saw earlier in the season when he guided the Bulls to a narrow win against the Force. His opposite number, Fred Zeilinga, may be lacking confidence after last week's performance against the Lions. Zeilinga missed three attempts on goal including a match-winning opportunity after the full-time hooter.

Overall: Bulls 14, Sharks 9, Draws 2
In Durban: Bulls 6, Sharks 5, Draw 1

– The Sharks have lost their last two matches but have not been beaten three times in a row since May 2013.
– The Bulls have won eight of the last 11 of these derbies but never by a double-figure margin.
– The Sharks’ three wins in this run have been by an aggregate difference of 40 points; in those 11 fixtures the Sharks (259) have scored two more points in total than the Bulls (257).
– All but one of the Bulls’ matches have seen at least 40 points on the board this season, an average of 52 per game.
– Only the Crusaders (29.3) have averaged more points than the Bulls (28.6), despite the South Africans rank equalling last for breaks per game (4.9).

Team Top point-scorer Top try-scorer Most metres gained Most tackles
Sharks Pat Lambie (93) Marcell Coetzee (4) SP Marais (660) Marcell Coetzee (83)
Bulls Handré Pollard (108) Francois Hougaard (4) Jesse Kriel (769) Deon Stegmann (85)

Sharks – 15 Odwa Ndungane, 14 S'bura Sithole, 13 Waylon Murray, 12 André Esterhuizen, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Fred Zeilinga, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Renaldo Bothma, 7 Willem Alberts, 6 Marcell Coetzee, 5 Marco Wentzel (c), 4 Mouritz Botha, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Franco Marais, 1 Beast Mtawarira.
Subs: 16 Monde Hadebe, 17 Thomas du Toit, 18 Lourens Adriaanse, 19 Giant Mtyanda, 20 Etienne Oosthuizen, 21 Conrad Hoffmann, 22 Lionel Cronjé, 23 SP Marais.

Bulls – 15 Jesse Kriel, 14 Francois Hougaard, 13 JJ Engelbrecht, 12 Burger Odendaal, 11 Bjorn Basson, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Rudy Paige, 8 Pierre Spies (c), 7 Jacques du Plessis, 6 Deon Stegmann, 5 Grant Hattingh, 4 Flip van der Merwe, 3 Marcel van der Merwe, 2 Adriaan Strauss, 1 Dean Greyling.
Subs: 16 Callie Visagie, 17 Morné Mellett, 18 Trevor Nyakane, 19 Arno Botha, 20 Lappies Labuschagne, 21 Piet van Zyl, 22 Tian Schoeman, 23 Jürgen Visser.

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Photo: Lee Warren/Gallo Images

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