Coaches tend to give away as little as possible before big play-off matches, but if you listen (or read) carefully, they drop plenty of hints.
Jan de Koning – Rugby365
It was no different this week in speaking to Sharks coach John Plumtree and his Blue Bulls counterpart Frans Ludeke, ahead of Saturday’s Currie Cup semifinal in Durban.
Plumtree, in particular, made some noteworthy observations and the most significant of those is the role that the weather can play in both the tactics of the two teams and the outcome of the match.
While the table-topping Sharks will be keen to continue their try-scoring exploits – their 62 tries, at more than four a game, is the highest in the competition – the possibility of wet conditions on Saturday could put a dampener on their game plan.
Even though Plumtree was careful not to reveal too much, he admitted that his team wants to play “ambitiously”.
Then came the proviso.
“The conditions can determined how we want to play,” Plumtree said, with reference to the rain that has already fallen this week and the prediction of more precipitation on Saturday, admitting that “things [team tactics] can change”.
Bulls coach Frans Ludeke was a lot more forthright in stating that his team will not stray from a well-rehearsed gameplan – an approach that has brought them three Super Rugby titles in the last four years and five Currie Cup victories in the last eight years.
It may well be that the conditions – combined with the fact that it is a play-off match – will favour a more conservative, low-risk approach.
As it is, the margin for error in these games are minimal, more so in a game where there is so little to choose between the contestants.
Ludeke felt that with both teams having been there and have lots of experience – players who know how to handle the big occasion – it will come down to decision-making on the field.
“You know that against them [the Sharks] the set pieces are vital,” Ludeke told rugby365.com, adding: “It is also important to know how to get out of your half and lay a solid platform to launch attacks from, or base your tactical game on.”
With very little to choose between the two teams – both have enough players with international experience – the Bulls appear to be better equipped in terms of play-off experience, having advanced to finals more regularly than the current shiver of Sharks.
“That is an important aspect,” Ludeke said, adding that “Decision-makers on the field are key.
“We are blessed with players who are experienced in that aspect.
“It is crucial that when the pressure is on, they are the guys who must make the right calls.”
However, the Bulls mentor was quick not to dismiss the Sharks as a major threat, especially not since the game was on their home turf.
“There is no doubt that it will take 80 minutes of bruising rugby,” he said.
“It doesn’t matter how much we talk ahead of the game, what matters is who use the opportunities presented to them on Saturday.”
Plumtree said his men were “totally focussed” on what they’ve achieved as a team this year and using that as confidence going into this game.
“We know what we’re facing in the Bulls,” the Sharks mentor said, adding: “They’re a great side, probably the best provincial side in the world, certainly the best in South Africa, and we’re not naive to that.
“But, by the same token, we believe we have improved and we’re playing on our home pitch in front of our home crowd.”
Players to watch:
For the Sharks: From 15 to one they have quality, but it will be the wise old heads of Stefan Terblanché (as captain), along with Springboks Ryan Kankowski, Jannie du Plessis, Bismarck du Plessis and Tendai Mtawarira that could hold the key. The exciting Louis Ludik, at fullback, powerful Lwazi Mvovo on the wing and the youthful exuberance of Patrick Lambie at flyhalf are always worth the entry fee.
For the Blue Bulls: This is a team of proven quality across the park. However, the lock combination of Victor Matfield (with the added responsibility of the captaincy) and Bakkies Botha is rated as the best in the world. You would want to see if they live up to their star status. Then there is the match-winning ability of Morné Steyn at flyhalf and the rare qualities of Francois Hougaard at scrumhalf. Danie Rossouw is preferred at No.8 ahead of Pierre Spies and you wonder of that was a good selection?
Head to head: You can take any position and it would make for an interesting showdown. However, the key battles will happen along the spines of the two teams – at hooker, Springboks Bismarck du Plessis and Chiliboy Ralepelle, at lock – Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha against Alistair Hargreaves and Steven Sykes, at No.8, Ryan Kankowski against Danie Rossouw, the halfbacks – Patrick Lambie and Charl McLeod versus Morné Steyn and Francois Hougaard. You can go further down the team, pick your own hot spots, but those could be the defining battles of this game.
2007: Sharks won 29-10, Durban
2007: Sharks won 26-18, Pretoria
2008: Blue Bulls won 35-14, Pretoria
2008: Sharks won 34-25, Durban
2008: Sharks won 14-9, Durban (Final)
2009: Sharks won 19-13, Durban
2009: Sharks won 29-23, Pretoria
2010: Sharks won 34-28, Durban
2010: Blue Bulls won 40-34, Pretoria
rugby365.com Prediction: Neither team will lack motivation, simply because the players all know what’s at stake. For more than three months it has been building towards this, the Currie Cup play-offs. Now it all comes down to one game. While the Bulls have won more trophies in the last decade, the Sharks have also displayed plenty of championship qualities over the years. It is really as close as the coaches suggest – one incident, one moment of brilliance or a moment of madness can turn this game on its head. Whichever team wins this, it won’t be by a massive margin – 10 points or less. We feel the Blue Bulls may just sneak it.
Sharks: 15 Louis Ludik, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Stefan Terblanché (captain), 12 Andries Strauss, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Patrick Lambie, 9 Charl McLeod, 8 Ryan Kankowski, 7 Willem Alberts, 6 Keegan Daniel, 5 Alistair Hargreaves, 4 Steven Sykes, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Replacements: 16 Craig Burden, 17 Eugene van Staden, 18 Anton Bresler, 19 Jacques Botes, 20 Rory Kockott, 21 André Pretorius, 22 Odwa Ndungane.
Blue Bulls: 15 Zane Kirchner, 14 Gerhard van den Heever, 13 Jaco Pretorius, 12 Wynand Olivier, 11 Jaco van der Westhuyzen, 10 Morné Steyn, 9 Francois Hougaard, 8 Danie Rossouw, 7 Dewald Potgieter, 6 Derick Kuün, 5 Victor Matfield (captain), 4 Bakkies Botha, 3 Werner Kruger, 2 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 1 Dean Greyling.
Replacements: 16 Bandise Maku, 17 Rossouw de Klerk, 18 Flip van der Merwe, 19 Pierre Spies, 20 Ruan Snyman, 21 Jacques-Louis Potgieter, 22 Deon Stegmann.
Date: Saturday, October 16
Venue: Absa Stadium, Durban
Kick-off: 14.30 (12.30 GMT)
Expected weather: Showery, mostly cloudy and cool. High of 20°C, low of 16°C. Chance of precipitation 58 percent.
Referee: Marius Jonker
Assistant referees: Jonathan Kaplan, Christie du Preez
TMO: Johann Meuwesen