The Sharks’ ability to go the distance will be put to the test when they face the British & Irish Lions in Johannesburg, writes DYLAN JACK.
After leading the Super Rugby standings before the competition was suspended in March 2020, the Sharks struggled to replicate that same form throughout the domestic Unlocked and Currie Cup season.
To be fair, the Sharks were severely affected by Covid-19 outbreaks in their squad, which disrupted their progress.
Nevertheless, the Durban side managed to grind out a Currie Cup semi-final win over Western Province, with a gameplan that revolved largely around their kicking game. In the title decider against the Bulls in Pretoria, the Sharks raced into a 14-9 lead, but it wasn’t meant to be, as the Bulls scored in extra time to take the trophy.
They narrowly missed out on progressing through to the PRO14 Rainbow Cup final after being beaten by the Bulls in Durban after needing a bonus-point victory to finish top of the South African table.
With the backing of American consortium MVM Holdings and a new global partnership with Roc Nation, the Sharks have not only held on to most of their squad, but also added Springbok captain Siya Kolisi to their roster.
Added to this, the Sharks have a core of young stars who have all received valuable game time over the past season, including scrumhalf Jaden Hendrikse, flank/hooker Dylan Richardson, opensider James Venter, locks JJ van der Mescht and Ruben van Heerden, and hooker Fez Mbatha.
These players will be the core of the team that starts against the Lions and will have to carry extra responsibility as the Sharks’ Springboks – captain Lukhanyo Am and wings Sbu Nkosi and Makazole Mapimpi among them – won’t be available.
Another bright youngster with immense potential, Phendulani Buthelezi, will lead the team out at Ellis Park, just a couple of weeks after being named as the Sharks captain for the 2021 Currie Cup season. It is the latest step in the 22-year-old loose forward’s journey as a leader – given that he captained the Junior Springboks and SA Schools team – but there will be a big responsibility on his shoulders leading out a young team.
Hendrikse and playmaker Curwin Bosch will both play an important role in this game for the Sharks and will have extra motivation, having been left out of the Springbok squad for the Test series.
“Curwin has led our team, our game management and our attack over the last 12 months and he has done it really well. The pressure will fall on him to direct the team. Generally, Curwin is a leader within his own right, although he isn’t the captain,” Sharks coach Sean Everitt said in the buildup to the game.
“For us, Curwin has just got to manage the game correctly. Game management in games like this is really important. We do know that the Lions won’t give you too much. So, it’s about exploiting the opportunities that we get. Most of those will come from Curwin. If Curwin executes well and puts his backs away well, there is no reason why, if there were any issues, he wouldn’t be called up to the Boks.”
With that said, the Sharks won’t move away from the approach that has served them so well over the past year. The Lions will have to be wary of their opponents’ kicking game, as well as giving away cheap turnovers as the Sharks are deadly in the first phase of a counter-attack.
The Sharks pack, missing the likes of Bok prop pair Thomas du Toit and Ox Nche, as well as Kolisi and No 8 Sikhumbuzo Notshe, will be put under pressure by a Lions pack dominated by experienced internationals.
The B&I Lions haven’t had too much of an issue in dispatching the Sharks in their previous two tours, claiming 39-3 and 42-12 wins in 2009 and 1997, respectively.
The Sharks did make a good fist of things in the first half of their 2009 clash, restricting the Lions to a 7-3 scoreline at half time and noticeably giving them a problem in the scrums, before the tourists scored five second-half tries.
Unlike in previous tours, the two teams will not be meeting at Kings Park, but instead will face off at Ellis Park in Johannesburg, adding an interesting altitude factor to the match.
The Sharks will likely field a starting lineup with a youthful look to it and that inexperience could have the team conceding penalties under pressure. However, they will be tested in their ability to go for the full 80 minutes, especially given that the game is going to be played at altitude.
The Sharks have not had much luck on their previous visits to Gauteng, conceding over 40 points in each of their last two round-robin games against the Bulls in Pretoria, while also struggling against the Lions at Ellis Park. Added to this, Sean Everitt’s team has made a bad habit of starting games at a terrific pace, but fading badly in the last 10-15 minutes.
If they hope to overcome the altitude factor and beat the Lions, this is where they will have to stand up and be counted.
STAT THAT MATTERS
60 – Total number of kicks in play from the Sharks across the 2020-21 Currie Cup playoffs.
Photo: Anton Geyser/Gallo Images