Sharks coach Jake White was in a jovial mood yesterday before his team’s march to Pretoria. In fact, he was downright bullish about his team’s chances of winning their first away game of the year and their fifth in a row.
It is a match built up as the first derby of genuine substance in the South African conference after five rounds of the teams settling into form.
The Sharks are unbeaten, the Bulls have recovered from a rocky start to win their last two games and refreshed by a bye, and home ground advantage closes the gap further for a Bulls team outclassed on paper.
“We have every reason to be keen. We are away from home but the ‘glass is half full’,” said White, a picture of confidence at the press conference yesterday to name his team for the match.
“I’m looking at it from a number of positives,” he said.
“We’ve had a great start, we have a settled team, and we have added some exciting youngsters in André Esterhuizen and Tim Swiel. They can add value and give us something different to what we gave the Bulls in week one.”
The youthful pair have been promoted to the bench after excelling at Vodacom Cup level.
Swiel covers fullback, wing and flyhalf, while Esterhuizen, who had a startling debut against Saracens in January, is earmarked for a second-half role at inside centre for Frans Steyn, who has played every minute of the season so far.
The starting line-up is unchanged. Youngster S’buru Sithole continues at outside centre and on the wing, JP Pietersen’s comeback continues after he was rushed into the side last week.
Pietersen will become the youngest South African to reach the 100-game milestone in Super Rugby, and the 24th overall. At 27 years and 253 days, he surpasses Morné Steyn (27 years and 312 days), Pierre Spies (27:344) and Meyer Bosman (27:351).
On that list of centurions is Victor Matfield, the most capped South African in this competition (128), and in a late change to the Bulls team the 36-year-old has been restored to the captaincy because of the injury setback suffered by key lock Flip van der Merwe, who has been the captain since the injury to Pierre Spies in the second round.
The Matfield legend and the “Loftus factor” are among the psychological hurdles that White believes his team can overcome.
“Rewind to a few weeks ago when we were labelled favourites and spoken of as one of the form teams,” White said.
“Nothing’s changed. We have points on the board and are regarded as a serious threat. We know what we have to do. We are going up to Pretoria to a stadium the Sharks have always enjoyed and where they have had good results.”
A reality is that four of the last six encounters between these teams have been settled by a margin of seven points or less, with each side winning three games.
But White and his troops also know that the Bulls thrive on making a mockery of statistics.
“The Bulls have a great record at Loftus. They have won three Super Rugby titles from that base,” White admitted. - The Star