Only a top effort will do it for Sharks
THREE months ago, the Cheetahs came to Durban as thorough underdogs for a firstround Super Rugby match and were duly beaten 24-9 by the Sharks, who in turn three months later find themselves the underdogs for tomorrow’s return fixture in Bloemfontein.
Back in February, the Free Staters hit the ground running with a resounding splat and, along with the Lions, their old allies in adversity, they remained in the murky depths of the competition cellar until mid-season, despite having pulled a handsome ace from their collective sleeve in Sydney in March to shock the Waratahs into a defeat that had them booed off the field.
The Cheetahs kept on losing although almost always by within seven points and they kept on scoring tries, and their 10 bonus points are the most by any of the 15 teams.
And then they hit a winning streak of four games in a row, a record for the Cheetahs in Super Rugby. It included the prize scalp of the Crusaders in Bloemfontein, and last week ended with honour in defeat to the Bulls in Pretoria.
Interestingly, the ninthplaced Cheetahs have scored 383 points, second only to the Crusaders (397), and the 38 tries they have scored is bettered only by the Crusaders (40) and the Reds (42).
The fifth-placed Sharks, by comparison, are only four tries behind the Cheetahs but here is the deal – the Cheetahs have leaked 43 tries, just over double the amount of the Sharks (21). Only the Waratahs (17) and the Stormers (13) have conceded less.
These statistics say a lot about the season thus far, but what they don’t reveal is recent form. The Cheetahs have shored up their defence over the past month and turned their weak point into a strong point. Previously fragile players on defence are now making their one-on-one tackles.
Apart from sorting out their tackling, the Cheetahs have been very good in the set pieces and that has provided a launching pad for their ball carriers to get them over the advantage line and unleash their backs.
Flanker Ashley Johnson, lock Francois Uys, props Coenie Oosthuizen and WP Nel, and hooker Adriaan Strauss have made big yards with ball in hand off the back of solid set pieces.
At the back, they have the big boots of Riaan Viljoen and Sias Ebersohn, so they can vary their game.
Which brings us to the Sharks and what they have to do to win this absolutely vital match if they are to make the quarter-finals.
The Bulls showed the Sharks the way at Loftus last week when they disrupted the Cheetahs’ set piece enough times to curb the impact of Johnson and company.
The Sharks have to tighten up their game and not allow the home side to get momentum. They also need to kick intelligently for territory. In the words of coach Plumtree, they need to play Test match (lower risk) rugby and ensure they are not trapped behind the gain line when on attack.
But, above all, each player has got to pull finger and up his intensity in everything he does. What has gone before is no longer good enough so close to the play-offs.
Plumtree has kept changes to a minimum but there is, of course, the much-publicised return of Frederic Michalak, who from the bench will cover both scrumhalf and flyhalf.
In other changes, Charl McLeod starts at nine in place of the injured Conrad Hoffmann. In the forwards, lock Gerhard Mostert replaces Alistair Hargreaves, who drops to the bench. There is also a boost for the Sharks with the return of Ryan Kankowski, who starts at No 8 in a back row of Willem Alberts and Keegan Daniel.
Centre Adi Jacobs is back from injury and displaces Riaan Swanepoel from the bench.