Tide could be turning on the big fish

The pragmatic coach is one who knows when to take the foot off the accelerator. Sharks coach John Plumtree, asked how his team prepared for last week’s encounter with the Stormers, admitted that they had spent much of the week asleep.

Some might argue that they were overtly somnolent in the subsequent match, but it seems that Plumtree was ­content to take the hit.

There was the suspicion that even a fully rested and focused Sharks team would have lost to a Stormers outfit that remains unbeaten. Their coach, Allister Coetzee, said that tactically the Stormers looked to shut down the Sharks midfield, so that the width the home side relies on was absent. It was ruthlessly implemented and rarely have the Sharks seemed so toothless.

The problem lies with a midfield missing the injured Pat Lambie, and featuring a centre combination of Meyer Bosman and Stefan Terblanche that appears largely dysfunctional. Major surgery is required if the Sharks are to regain their bite.

But it needs to be reiterated that we are in uncharted waters. The expanded competition is still in its infancy and an obtuse method has been devised to ensure a representative final six teams at the knockout stage. Attrition will bite some teams that currently look unstoppable.

It’s not impossible that the Stormers could be one of those teams. Last week they lost much improved flank Pieter Louw for the season and, although they have the resources to cover that up, they can’t afford to lose Peter Grant, Jacque Fourie or Andries Bekker.

Nevertheless, right now the Stormers are riding the wave and at this distance seem likely challengers for the title currently held by the Bulls. Intriguingly, it is the South African conference that looks like being the most hotly contested, since the Stormers, Sharks and Bulls are probably chasing two playoff spots.

Although the rules of the competition do not preclude one country providing three sides in the six team playoffs, the reality is that it will be hard for any third-placed team to progress. In Australia the Reds have emerged as the team to beat after two seasons of rebuilding. After outlasting the Lions 30-25 in Johannesburg last week they have a much tougher assignment against the Stormers in Cape Town.

The Waratahs are in second spot in the Australian conference and the traditional powerhouse of the game down under can expect to be in the mix in two months’ time. But an inexplicable loss to the Cheetahs will be of concern to the Sydneysiders, especially given that the Reds beat the same team 41-8. The scraps will be fought over by the Brumbies, Rebels and Force, as it is hard to imagine any of the trio making the playoffs.

In New Zealand the Crusaders’ closest challengers are the Blues, which is intriguing since it is possible that the two sides will be sharing a stadium over the next few months. The two alternative South Island stadiums available to the Crusaders away from Christchurch hold only 10 000 and that’s not enough to make ends meet. Accordingly the Crusaders have said that they would like to use Eden Park in Auckland, a 50 000 seat facility.

Imagine that Cape Town was hit by a tsunami and Newlands had to be closed down; imagine that the Stormers then asked the Bulls whether they might share Loftus Versfeld for several months — and you get an idea of the radical plans being hatched by the Crusaders. Ultimately the absence of a true home may count against them, but it will take a good team to make it happen.

This week they play the Bulls in Timaru, the home stadium of South Canterbury and one of the 10 000 seat venues. That will be in the Bulls favour, as will the momentum gained in the final quarter against the Hurricanes last week. The match was on a knife edge and the ‘Canes got across the Bulls line, but couldn’t get the ball down. A converted try at that point would have levelled the scores.

Instead, the Bulls created a fabulous try for Francois Hougaard and then closed the game down in trademark fashion. At the heart of the closure was Fourie du Preez, back to his wonderful best at precisely the right time. Du Preez’s pinpoint box kicks made fools of defenders and his pop passes to rushing forwards made it seem a lot like old times.

It is surely no coincidence that Du Preez’s return to form coincided with the best 20 minutes of the Bulls’ season to date, or that Morne Steyn had the time and space to slot two drop goals. Was this the Bulls with a last mighty effort, like Samson eyeless in Gaza, or was it a glimpse of things to come?

A note of caution needs to be sounded, for the ‘Canes have won only once in six games to date. The Crusaders, on the other hand, are the real deal and in the words of Plumtree, who knows a thing or two about New Zealand rugby, “that’s the best team they’ve had for some time”.

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