Province go Shark-hunting
Positive attitude and pack key in top-of-table cup clash
THERE are always different ways of looking at things, but for Western Province this is a time to go for the glass half full option as they contemplate their immediate challenge in the Currie Cup.
Taking the negative line would be to look at the next three games and think of them as a critical juncture which could blow them out the competition if fortune smiles against them. It is true that facing the Sharks (away), Blue Bulls (home) and Cheetahs (away) on successive Saturdays is a huge undertaking.
But looking at it another way, what WP really have, starting with today’s game against the Sharks in Durban, is a great opportunity to virtually secure a home semi-final.
Here’s why: Unlike last year, WP are advantaged when they play the two 2008 finalists during the understrength phase as they are not missing nearly as many Springboks. Neither the Sharks nor the Bulls are the same teams without their Springboks, and Province don’t get to play either of them during the fullstrength phase.
So if WP can get through with three wins from their next three matches, or even two out of three, then WP managing director Rob Wagner might as well start the process of informing his staff that they will be required to work on the semi-final weekend.
For the remainder of the competition WP will have their Boks back, and be playing inferior opposition.
Second place at the halfway stage might not sound like a bad place to be, but if WP were brutally frank with themselves, being three points adrift of the Sharks would not have been seen in the stars when the Sharks lost so comprehensively in Cape Town in July.
Back then Sharks coach John Plumtree spoke like a man heading to the gallows, it was almost as if his excuses for failure had already been figured out.
Then came a not so subtle shift in attitude and a slight change in approach which took into account the adjustment made to the Sharks team strengths when the Boks aren’t present. And they haven’t lost since.
The by-product of playing away from their usual strength, which is the forwards, has been a dramatic improvement in the Sharks’ attacking game.
This is one game where they should be looking to have their kick and chase, when they do opt to kick, spot on, as much of the current Sharks strategy revolves around the punishment of poorly executed kicks. In other words, a good kick that they are forced to kick back will be returned by the boot, but if a kick is poorly directed, then WP can expect the Sharks to punish them.
It is easy to understand where the Sharks’ shift has come from. The Bulls and the Springboks, with their powerful forwards and brilliant field kickers, really have no reason to ever bow to the critics of their current strategy.
As Fourie du Preez says, there is winning rugby and losing rugby, and they have the players to shut out opponents playing that way.
Other lesser mortals though cannot have that certainty.
Today the Sharks know there is a good chance that it will be the home pack that is for once forced onto the back foot in this clash between the coastal rivals at King’s Park.
So to make up for that Johann Muller’s team will be working towards being on the ball in other areas, as they were when they beat the Lions with between just 30 and 40% of the possession two weeks ago.
The Sharks’ trump is undeniably Argentinian star Juan Martin Hernandez.
That is particularly so in the sense that luck has conspired to restrict him to just 30 minutes in a Sharks jersey so far, and because that game was in Rustenburg it shielded him from analysis.
WP coach Allister Coetzee, in his former trading as Springbok assistant, would have studied Hernandez at the World Cup, but not since then.
As Coetzee says, everyone knows how good Hernandez’s kicking game is, yet you get the sense it is what Hernandez could do with ball in hand that is really exciting the Sharks coaches.
As WP captain Luke Watson says though, the key to negating the danger posed by Hernandez is to ruin the Sharks ball at source and to be clever about how they deal with the other Sharks kingpin, Jean Deysel.
He didn’t say it, but he must surely know it, as must his coaches – all field kicks have to be perfectly executed, and when they aren’t, the defensive system must be well organised.
The Sharks rightly start as favourites because they are playing with great confidence.
But in their pack WP do have the material to upset the champions in their own backyard and thus set in motion a wave of momentum to carry them through next week’s clash with the Bulls and into clutching distance of a home semi-final.
CRITICAL ROLE: Western Province captain Luke Watson will have to lead from the front.