The Sharks may have been harder hit by Springbok call-ups than the Cheetahs, but when the two teams square up in the Currie Cup in Durban on Saturday, it will be pretty even stevens up front.
The Sharks have lost four front rowers to national duty and call-ups while Free State have lost three. And as the old saying goes, the battle is won up front.
“Both sides have suffered player losses, through injury and Springbok call-ups, but we know what the Currie Cup is all about, it’s a test of depth and it should be a really good game,” Sharks coach John Plumtree said. “I don’t think there is a lot between the teams. It will come down to the side that wants it more on the weekend.”
Sharks winger Odwa Ndungane was certainly appreciative of the efforts of the back-up players with so many of the senior squad not part of the Currie Cup campaign at present.
Ten players from the Sharks were initially called up by Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer and while Bismarck du Plessis and JP Pietersen withdrew through injury, second-string hooker Craig Burden was drafted in and travelled to Argentina.
“It’s always nice to have a full strength team, but you always know that during the Currie Cup players will be lost to the Boks,” Ndungane said. “You have to deal with it and the nice thing for us is that we have a good squad of young players coming through and it’s a nice opportunity for them to put up their hands for next season.”
However, the Sharks come off a loss to the Blue Bulls – their first defeat of the campaign last week, going down 42-31 in Pretoria – and Plumtree will be exhorting his players to up the ante for the visit of the high-flying Cheetahs.
“Although the Cheetahs started off with a loss (to the Lions), they have had a couple of wins (Bulls and Griquas) now and they’re looking pretty confident,” Plumtree said. “They will know that we are down a bit on manpower but we are really keen on keeping our winning record at home intact.
“We always have really good games against Free State and I’m sure this week will be no different.”
“It was obviously quite disappointing and not the result we were looking for,” veteran winger Ndungane added.
“We had a good start and let ourselves down in the second half, I think individually we just didn’t perform very well. Overall I think we were okay. We must remember that for some of our players it was the first time being there and playing against the Bulls at Loftus. That’s always going to be tough for anyone, experienced or inexperienced. I think we made a lot of mistakes in the game. We’ve had a look at the videos and hopefully those errors will be cut out against the Cheetahs this week.”
Plumtree added: “Even though we’ve won a couple of games, we aren’t happy with where we are right now. At the weekend against the Blue Bulls, we played some really good rugby but we conceded 42 points, which isn’t good enough.”
And he has been stressing the need for his side to win their home games ahead of the visit by the Free Staters.
“You want to win your home games in any competition,” Plumtree said.
“Although winning away from home is also very important, if you drop games at home, it puts a lot of pressure on you, so the next fortnight is going to be crucial for us, playing the last two games of the first round.
“We want to be as accurate as we can, to improve as much as possible, which is very important.”