The Sharks need a specialist No 5 more than they need another flyhalf, writes JON CARDINELLI.
After the defeat to the Bulls, Sharks director of rugby Jake White said that his side battled to adapt following the injuries to scrumhalf Cobus Reinach and flyhalf Pat Lambie. It was certainly a factor in the defeat, but not the biggest area of concern.
The Bulls, and Victor Matfield in particular, succeeded in disrupting the Sharks at the lineout, and thus prevented them from obtaining good attacking possession. Hooker Bismarck du Plessis battled to find his jumpers, and No 8 Ryan Kankowski, who has assumed some of the calling responsibilities since Pieter-Steph du Toit went down with a season-ending injury, was at a loss for a response.
At the beginning of the season, the Sharks were widely touted as favourites for the Super Rugby title. I made the same statement in the build-up to the tournament, and my call was based on the quality of their pack rather than the potency of their backline.
But since losing Du Toit ahead of the clash against the Reds in round five, the Sharks pack has lacked balance, both in terms of quality and experience. They are missing a specialist No 5, and they need to find a replacement if they are to make good on their pre-season promise.
Du Toit was the standout player for the Sharks in the 2013 Currie Cup final. By his own admission, he furthered his education as a lineout manager when he toured Europe with the Springboks in November 2013. During the initial rounds of the 2014 Super Rugby tournament, he started to take responsibility in that key position. It's a shame for the Sharks and Boks that his progress should be halted by injury.
The Boks will have a couple of alternatives, with Matfield returning to the national fold and Flip van der Merwe providing back-up. The Sharks are less well stocked, and may have to look abroad for a like-for-like replacement.
Stephan Lewies has been solid since making his debut for the Sharks, but is still too green to be handed the responsibility of managing the lineout. The Sharks do have some second-row alternatives in Anton Bresler, Willem Alberts, and even Jean Deysel, but all of these men are better suited to the role of No 4.
Kankowski has been calling the lineouts in Du Toit's absence, but would not make a good locking option. He has also started to play some of his best rugby at No 8, and it would be unfair to the individual, and potentially counter-productive to the team, if he was shunted to the second row at this stage.
White needs to cast the net wide. He needs an experienced player rather than a youngster in that key position, and he may need to look to Europe or even Japan for a lock who can fill the void.
The latter seems more likely given the structure of the Japanese leagues may allow for a player to join a Super Rugby side on a short-term basis. It would be wise to recruit this player sooner rather than later.
Losing Lambie and Reinach was a blow, but the Sharks may be able to plug those gaps.
Charl McLeod isn't as big an attacking threat as Reinach, but is suited to the Sharks' game plan and boasts a lot of experience. In Frans Steyn, they have a capable goal-kicker who can offset the loss of Lambie.
Neither Fred Zeilinga nor Tim Swiel offer the all-round skills of Lambie, and it will be a concern that both players lack experience. But if the Sharks pack is going forward, it will make their task much easier. The Sharks already possess one of the best scrums in the competition, and if they can rectify their lineout issues, they will improve their chances of topping the overall Super Rugby log.
Du Toit is the one player who White couldn't afford to lose. However, now that the worse-case scenario has played out, White will have to explore every option. It could mean the difference between winning the title, and falling short yet again.
Photo: Duif du Toit/Gallo Images