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Before the Sharks’ must-win match against the Bulls a few weeks ago their coach, John Plumtree, spoke about “twin barrels” pointed at the collective forehead of his team… the Sharks won the match with a brilliant display.
They then beat the Cheetahs at home, again with the gun to their head, and then won in Brisbane in a knock-out game, despite being written off. So will the underdog’s tail wag once more for the once again under-pressure Sharks when they visit the table-topping Stormers at Newlands tomorrow?
No 8 Ryan Kankowski, who is enjoying the form of his life, puts it this way: “The Sharks like making things tough for themselves. We only seem to play when there’s a knife against our throat,” he said.
“When we have put ourselves under pressure, we tend to come out on top, and there is no greater pressure in Super Rugby than having to beat the Stormers in front of a sold-out Newlands.”
He is quite right. The Stormers know that if they get over the line ahead of the Sharks they have the glory of a home final next week against the winner of today’s semi-final in New Zealand between the Chiefs and the Crusaders in Hamilton.
The winner of that game will be cheering the Sharks louder than anybody in Durban because if the Stormers lose tomorrow, the final will be in either Hamilton or Christchurch.
In short, the Stormers hold all the aces – but they have to get past the Sharks…
History certainly favours a home win. Since the competition started in 1996, teams playing at home have lost only five out of 32 semi-finals. However, this has happened twice to the Stormers at Newlands – in 1999 against the Highlanders and in 2011 against the Crusaders.
And the Sharks are one of only four teams to have won a semi-final away from home – in 1996 against the Reds when there was a precursor to their performance last week in knocking the Queenslanders out of the competition at the quarter-final stage. The Crusaders have done it twice, the Brumbies once and the Highlanders once.
“We are confident we can do it,” Kankowski said. “The guys have been gelling well since the June break in the tournament (for the Boks’ series against England). We’ve had enough time to get settled and have accumulated some good wins (Bulls, Cheetahs, Reds).
“The Stormers will feel they are refreshed after a week off but we reckon momentum is with is with us, so each team fancies its chances,” Kankowski continued. “We’ve prepared well, we went down to Cape Town a day early (yesterday) to get into the groove, and hopefully all our plans will fall into place.”
One of the main reasons for the Sharks’ recent success is that they have at last got their set piece functioning well. The scrumming is now a strong point thanks to the all-Bok front row of the Du Plessis brothers and The Beast, while the lineout, for so long a weakness that was pin-pointed by other teams, is now a strength. Kankowski has been crucial to its revival as when he returned to the starting line-up from injury, he assumed the responsibility of calling the lineout.
“Ryan can take credit for the good job he has done in calling the lineouts,” coach John Plumtree said. “The boys have been really switched on and delivered some nice options. We know it’s an important area of our game because it has been targeted, so we’ve put a big focus on it. Our scrum has been going well, our set piece been a major plus.
“The restart was an area that hurt us earlier in the season, but it hasn’t been a problem for us recently. But we know the Stormers provide a real challenge in that area, so we will have to make sure we’re on the mark.”
Plumtree used Bok flank Willem Alberts to telling effect at lock last week and he will be in the same role tomorrow, but the coach says Alberts does not have a traditional second row job.
“I am not using him in a traditional locking role. He wasn’t involved in a lot of lineouts against the Reds. We left him to his running game and the only area he was really tied up in was at scrum time. I thought it was a positive. I can say that because we won, but his involvement in the game was good and we will look to continuing that.
“A positive as well is that it kept together the loose forward trio that has been going so well. There is always going to be a bit more pressure at lineout time, but Keegan, Ryan, Willem and Anton did really well against the Reds. But we know it’s an area the Stormers will target, they’re pretty tall and we will need to be sharp with our lineout.”