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Preview: S14 semi-final – Sharks v Blues

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The first semi-final of the 2007 Super 14, between the Sharks and the Blues in Durban on Saturday, has all the makings of an epic game of rugby.

There is a hint of grudge and revenge; there is the tradition of rivalry, the influx of youthful and dynamic talent, plus the grit of hardened physicality which both sides possess that are bound to clash in a mass of colour and speed.

What’s more is that watched by a full house in Durban, this potent mix is sure to be ignited by all the spark of a knock-out game.

These two sides were the early pace-setters in the competition, with both sides having to climb out of slumps to guarantee their spot in the final four.

The Sharks, after going down to the Brumbies and the Force managed to do that more effectively than the originally higher-rated Blues outfit, so the Auckland franchise is forced to make the long haul to the Shark Tank in Durban, and now they find themselves underdogs.

The Sharks, who narrowly missed out on the play-offs last year, have retained their blooded talent, and have found their strength in the combination of that talent with the steadied grit and know-how of the likes of AJ Venter, BJ Botha, Johan Ackermann, Butch James and Percy Montgomery.

And the young stars have thrived.

To exemplify this, young Sharks star Brad Barritt counts Butch James as one of the heroes of his rugby youth, and now he sits on the fabled and vilified fly-half’s outside shoulder.

The home side, who have enjoyed a favourable draw along with the timed peak of their squad, are trying to keep their cool in the face of such an occasion.

“We’ve got quite a few young guys,” says forwards coach John Plumtree, “and you don’t want to build it up too much, because they could go into their shells.

“We’ve been talking about making sure we express ourselves out there, because you don’t want the guys to go into their shells for such a big game.”

It is that which the Sharks management must fear most – a retreat into the figurative shell.

Whilst the Blues exploded onto the favourites’ pedestal with the fire of dynamic attack, the Sharks have, in patches, seemed pretty dour and lifeless in attack, opting rather to strangle the life out of their opponents with ruthless and near-villainous defence and steely forward play which has seen something of a revival under the watchful eye of New Zealander coach John Plumtree.

To win this one, the Sharks will need to balance these two aspects of the game. They need to go out and take the victory, as opposed to pouncing on scraps. The forwards must release the backs  and talent and experience must be given reign for, as Plumtree says it, it’s expression.

“We are excited,” says Sharks coach Dick Muir.

“It’s something we have worked really hard for a long time, this started in October, so it will be just reward for the people involved, as well as the entire squad that we can give something back to our supporters who have stuck with us through thick and thin.”

The Blues meanwhile have recently been suffering through a mysterious slump brought on by their draw in the tournament which saw them take on the three strongest South African outfits consecutively.

First they lost to the Sharks in Albany by 25 to 32, and then were promptly handed beatings by the Stormers and then the Bulls in South Africa.

In fact, if it wasn’t for their convincing victory over the Force last week, one would think the Sharks should be the easy victors in this one, but then again if it wasn’t for that victory they wouldn’t have earned the right to play the Sharks in the semi-final in the first place.

The Blues scored some impressive victories in the earlier stages, tripping up to the Hurricanes however in an unlikely loss in Round Three.

Make no mistake, the bristling athleticism of their backs, their deft skills in the offload, and their clinical edge up front made them seem as if they were champions-elect of 2007, but the Sharks, and then the Stormers and the Bulls demonstrated the way to nullify that strength.

And the nullification was simple, you punch it in the nose.

The Blues faltered in the face of intimidating South African grind-your-face-in-the-dirt defence and exploitative offense, much to the consternation of David Nucifora and Troy Flavell.

The physical incision of the likes of Isaia Toeava was not allowed to flourish, and, with the influential Luke McAlister sidelined, the Blues, with due respect to the sublimely skilled fly-half Isa Nacewa, just lacked that extra general in the midfield to marshal their abundance of talent.

The bad news is McAlister, after returning for the Blues return out of their late slump (a pattern emerges) is out for this match, and the likes of Isaia Toeava and Rudi Wulff will have to carry some more responsibility on their own.

The Blues will have to learn to counter the Sharks’ pattern fast to pull off this one.

But one writes off the sheer talent in the Blues’ ranks at one’s own risk.

They have the power and they have the will to do just that. And make no mistake, they have arrived in Durban ready to rough things up and stamp their authority. Their skipper Troy Flavell puts it best.

“We are not here to take revenge [for their loss to the Sharks in Albany] but this is an opportunity to put matters right,” Flavell said.
“We may have to respond to their game by playing the same game. The Sharks like to dominate their opponents physically. They build momentum by achieving that sort of advantage.”

Expect brutality, but expect some sharp flair to accompany it too.

Players to watch:

For the Sharks: One of the underrated players in Super rugby is Jacques Botes. A rare combination of pace, skill, and a dogged flanker’s strength and reading of the game make Botes one of the Sharks’ kingpins as he is able to press home the advantage gained by his tight five.

For the Blues: He has seemingly struggled a little without his partner in crime Luke McAlister, but even so Isaia Toeava has been one of the stars of the tournament. This week he is shifted one in to inside centre and he has an opportunity to demonstrate that over and above his obvious strike-running attributes, he is able to organise attack and defence in high-pressure situations.

Head to head: Ackermann/Muller (Sharks) versus Rawlinson/Flavell (Blues) – It is all too easy to underestimate the importance of a team’s locking combination. To a large extent, the locks can dictate the rhythm of the game. They are responsible at first phase, closing the inside gaps on defence and often find themselves popping up in crucial channels come the try-scoring do-or-die moments. These two combinations are, apart from the Bulls’ locks, the most fearsome in Super rugby and one gets the impression that whoever can dominate here will be able to dominate elsewhere. The Blues have the athletic edge, but Ackermann and Muller may just have the sheer willpower to see their side home.

 

Prediction: The Blues have lost  McAlister and Williams.  McAlister in particular is a huge blow. They have also been on tour for a long time and the last time they were in SA they did not have a fun time. The Blues will come out and try to blow the Sharks away in the first 20 but it will be a bridge too far for the Blues and the Sharks will win comfortably by 10 to 15 points.

Previous matches:
2007: Sharks won 32-25, Albany
2006: Sharks won 32-15, Durban
2005: Blues won 36-13, Auckland
2004: Blues won 37-26, Durban
2003: Blues won 25-16, Auckland
2002: Sharks won 20-13, Durban
2001: Sharks won 41-27, Auckland
2000: Blues won 30-19, Durban
1999: Sharks won 12-6, Auckland
1998: Sharks won 24-8, Durban

Teams:

Sharks: 15 Percy Montgomery, 14 Francois Steyn, 13 Waylon Murray, 12 Bradley Barritt/Adrian Jacobs, 11 JP Pietersen, 10 Butch James, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Ryan Kankowski, 7 AJ Venter, 6 Jacques Botes, 5 Johann Muller, 4 Johan Ackermann, 3 BJ Botha, 2 John Smit (c), 1 Deon Carstens/Tendai Mtawarira
Replacements: 16 Bismarck du Plessis, 17 Tendai Mtawarira/Patric Cilliers, 18 Albert van den Berg, 19 Warren Britz, 20 Bob Skinstad, 21 Rory Kockott, 22 Adrian Jacobs/Odwa Ndungane

Blues: 15 George Pisi, 14 Doug Howlett, 13 Anthony Tuitavake, 12 Isaia Toeava, 11 Rudi Wulff, 10 Isa Nacewa, 9 Steve Devine, 8 Nick Williams, 7 Daniel Braid, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Troy Flavell (c), 4 Greg Rawlinson, 3 John Afoa, 2 Derren Witcombe, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 Nick White, 18 Angus MacDonald, 19 Justin Collins, 20 Taniela Moa, 21 David Holwell, 22 Ben Atiga.

Date: Saturday 12 May 2007
Venue: ABSA Stadium, Durban
Kick-off: 15.00 (13.00 GMT)
Conditions: Sunny and hot, high humidity levels. High 29’C, low 13’C
Referee: Stuart Dickinson (Australia)
Touch judges: James Leckie (Australia), James Scholtens (Australia)
Television match official: Geoff Acton (Australia)

By Chris Waldburger 365 Digital

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