The Easter Bunny has been generous to Durbanites with not only delivering a mouth-watering contest between the Sharks and the seven-time champion Crusaders, but also providing a 3pm kick-off on Saturday that should make for a classic encounter in warm autumn sunshine for families enjoying the Easter break.
For a number of reasons this is one not to be missed at the Shark Tank before Super Rugby’s unsociable (from a family perspective) evening kick-offs resume. Purely on a rugby level, the match is a massive draw card.
This could well the last occasion that we will see a legend such as Richie McCaw at Kings Park, and it is a pity that a similar great in Dan Carter has withdrawn from the game to return home to be with his wife as she gives birth to their second child.
(April 2010 Pic in Durban when McCaw and Co smashed the Sharks, with my Fiancee now wife in 2015 Razia Myers )
But the Canterbury team are replete with great players, and after their team lost last week to the Bulls in Pretoria, they will be pulling themselves together for a “must-win” result before departing Africa.
The Crusaders are anxious to make up ground on the Hurricanes, the Wellington team that is setting the pace in the competition and are on course to win the NZ Conference – unless the Crusaders and Chiefs wake up.
The Sharks also have a lot to prove. To quote Director of Rugby Gary Gold, “we are somehow top of the SA Conference, and I am not entirely sure how we got there …” and the message from the Sharks this week is that this glamour match will show them how good they really are, and whether they really can make a bid for the title.
Last week, the Sharks battled to subdue the Force without their regular halfback pairing of Patrick Lambie and Cobus Reinach, and with respect to Fred Zeilinga and Conrad Hoffman, how could they be expected to be on song when it was their first rugby of the year.
As it turned out, Zeilinga in particular played well enough given it was his first game time, but Lambie and Reinach are the current Springbok pairing and have had the benefit of six matches together before their combined rest last week, and they will bring greater game managibility and structure to the Sharks’ game.
It is true that not all of the Sharks’ big guns are back, including quite obviously the recently censured centre Frans Steyn, and four-week-banned Bismarck du Plessis. They are two colossal chunks of granite chiselled out of the Free State hinterland, but if it had to come down to a shoot-out over which pair you could have – the guile and intelligence of the playmakers, or the beef of the Bloem boys …?
Obviously Gold would love the luxury of a full-strength team, with Bismarck leading from the front, and Steyn smashing all before him in the midfield, but for now he will thank the rugby gods for the return of his brains trust, especially against a Crusaders team that has the ultimate balance between brains and brawn.
In the meantime, before the return of Du Plessis and Steyn, there is opportunity for others. Kyle Cooper is a tough bugger and deserves an extended chance of playing outside of Bismarck’s considerable shadow. Likewise Andre Esterhuizen is a beast at 12 and there is much interest in seeing how the SA Under 20 star develops with an extended run.
In seven rounds so far, the Sharks have had an unusually high rate of player unavailability, either through injury to stars such as Pieter-Steph du Toit and Jean Deysel, or suspension to the likes of the Sundance Kids, Steyn and Du Plessis.
The flip side is that the Sharks have somehow managed to win three in a row, and in the process the coaching staff is learning plenty about the depth of the squad. If the Sharks can get past the Crusaders in a vital home game, and then manage to win their next two games before their bye – the Lions away and the Bulls at home – they could be set up to give their tour in May a better shot than they have yet had the resources to muster.
By Mike Greenaway
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