Sharks must finish in top two

It looks like just one South African team will reach the Super Rugby semi-finals this year, writes MARK KEOHANE.

The Lions played with enterprise to beat the Blues in Johannesburg but they also played with conviction and with discipline. OK, so they got a bit of good fortune as well, but fortune does favour the brave and the Lions, especially in their approach, were brave.

The Sharks played with discipline, conviction and a definite plan to subdue the Reds in Durban.

The Stormers looked clueless in Hamilton in losing to the Chiefs and the Cheetahs, in being humiliated against the Hurricanes, could not be spoken of as a team. There were individual cameos for the Cheetahs, but rugby is a team game and the Cheetahs, in losing three successive matches in Australia and New Zealand, have not once put together a team performance.

The South African conference is looking decidedly Sharks friendly. Jake White’s team is four from four after a month and leads the overall conference.

The tournament is not won in March, but I’d be surprised to see more than one South African team in the semi-finals. The Sharks have the strongest squad and they also have the most impressive league return after four matches.

There has to be expectation on the Sharks, especially after the gain of 18 league points from four home matches. The immediate goal has to be a top-two tournament finish, which would then guarantee a home semi-final.

Teams have started well in previous campaigns and stumbled, but I don’t see this happening with the Sharks. White has a clear idea on how the Sharks will play in this tournament and he has identified the players required to implement the plan.

Pieter-Steph du Toit’s injury weakens the Sharks tight five, but injury is part of rugby and every team in Super Rugby loses or will lose influential players in the war of attrition. This war will always prove the greatest challenge to coaches, especially when it comes to national planning and selection.

Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer got it spot-on late last year when he picked veteran lock Bakkies Botha for the final two Tests of the year. Stormers lock Eben Etzebeth had been superb and there was a lot of supporter and media criticism condemning the inclusion of Botha. The reasons ranged from the Toulon-based veteran not being good enough to it being time to move on and invest in the youth of Etzebeth.

Meyer argued that it was not a case of one or the other and that both had roles within the Test squad and in the building of a Springbok squad for the 2015 World Cup.

Etzebeth, in the final Test of the year against France in Paris, broke an ankle 17 minutes into the Test. He will only play again in June. Meyer spoke afterwards of the comfort in having a player of Botha’s class available. He said it emphasised the necessity of striving to select two players of equal standing in each position.

It is why Meyer lured veteran Springbok lock Victor Matfield out of retirement. Matfield hadn’t played since the 2011 World Cup quarter-final exit and there was again condemnation that Matfield’s return would prejudice the investment in youth, specifically in the Sharks lock Du Toit.

Meyer was not convinced Du Toit was ready to start for the Springboks as a No 5 lock but he felt the player had the potential to become the best No 5 lock in the world. And even if he was already that, said Meyer, what were the options if Du Toit was injured? That is why he pushed for Matfield to consider a return.

A month ago Matfield returned, ironically playing against Du Toit in Durban. Back then the ignorant talk was of Du Toit showing Matfield why he should have stayed in retirement. This week the talk will be of Matfield because of Du Toit’s season-ending injury.

There doesn’t need to be an obsession with picking one player at the expense of another when in the squad context both can and should be accommodated.

The reality of the sport demands that if there is to be an obsession, it is to find two players equally good and accommodate both of them. This will be Meyer’s measurement of the potential strength of the Springboks, which isn’t to be confused with the strength of South African rugby.

Having more than one South African Super Rugby team in the play-offs makes South African rugby strong. Equally, an absence of more than one questions the health of the national game, which is not the same as questioning the state of the national team.

Currently, I’d say the Boks are strong but South African rugby isn’t as strong. We have two players of equal standing in most positions but we don’t have two or more Super Rugby teams of equal standing. Not at this moment.

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Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images