In the words of Currie Cup coach Brad Macleod-Henderson, the Sharks are “bracing for a forward onslaught” from Griquas in this afternoon’s season-opener at GWK Park.
For one reason or another, Griquas have a history of particularly punching above their weight when it comes to clashes against the Sharks, and winning results in Kimberley have been hard to come by in recent years.
Griquas love nothing more than drawing their opponents into a physical scrap, and once they are able to gain some form of ascendancy up front, the partisan Kimberley crowd adds to what is a particularly inhospitable environment for visiting teams.
It is the reason why the Sharks will be determined to make a strong start to this afternoon’s encounter, and set the tone from the outset in the physical exchanges.
“We would like to exploit Griquas anywhere we can, but it does all start up front,” said Macleod-Henderson.
“At scrum time you want to have a go at them and ideally put them on the back foot, but they’ve done well in the recent qualifying series, so they do have some consistency in selection.
“Their pack has been good for them, they have a good driving maul and some good ball carriers, so we will have to be on top of the game.”
With this in mind, Macleod-Henderson has opted to go with five forwards on the Sharks’ bench.
“We know it’s going to be a physical battle up in Kimberley, and by having those players on the bench, it gives us an opportunity to bring on fresh legs in the second half. We have a good backline, with a nice bit of continuity from Super Rugby, and so we’re looking forward to the challenge.”
Among the replacements, veteran prop Matt Stevens is set to make his Sharks debut off the bench, with the big man beneficially able to play on either side of the scrum.
Durban-born Stevens, 31, who was schooled at Kearsney College but went on to play 44 Tests for England, has joined the Sharks on a two-year deal, and will add valuable experience to the front row.
“Matt has been fantastic since he’s got here, and he’s got a lot of experience, having played for the British and Irish Lions and England,” said Macleod-Henderson.
“He has a great personality and has fitted in straight away, but it does take time to get used to the structures and the calls, so by bringing him off the bench, it just allows him a bit more time to settle in.”
Should the Sharks manage to lay the necessary foundations up front, there has also been an indication this week that the Durban side will be happy to adopt a ball-in-hand approach when possible.
“I wouldn’t say we’ll just be throwing the ball around, but we want to use the ball wisely,” said the Sharks coach.
“When the opportunities are there, we want to take them, but we want to make sure we’re accurate in what we do. That all pretty much starts up front, so we need to ensure we get ascendancy in that regard, and the rest of the game should take shape from there.”
And although the Sharks have bid farewell to several overseas-bound players, and contributed eight Springboks to the Rugby Championship squad, Macleod-Henderson said he was excited to see how a young team performed in their first Currie Cup outing together.
“The Boks are fantastic players and we’ll miss them, but at the same time it does give other players an opportunity.
“Some guys have been sitting on the sidelines for the last few months, and now they have the opportunity to step up and show what they can do. We’re going to Kimberley knowing it will be a tough battle, but it’s one we’re looking forward to.”
Meanwhile, Griquas coach Hawies Fourie said his side would not underestimate the Sharks, despite their lack of Boks.
“They may be without their Springboks, but we still know that we’re in for a big game,” Fourie said.
The Peacock Blues have retained most of the side which won this year’s Vodacom Cup and cemented their spot in the Premier Division after an undefeated round of qualifying matches.
Although Griquas have been heralded as the favourites for the clash, particularly with their home-ground advantage, Fourie was adamant that they would not look at the visitors as anything less than worthy opponents.
“The Sharks have good depth and will definitely pose a big threat. We are lucky that we have good momentum thanks to our good performance in the Vodacom Cup and qualifiers, but we still need to go out there and perform.”
One position where the Sharks are considered vulnerable is at scrumhalf, where youngster Cameron Wright will make his debut. He will be up against Griquas’ Tian Meyer, who has a wealth of experience after moving to Kimberley from the Lions.
Both Wright and Sharks loosehead prop Thomas du Toit were on the school benches last year and the latter will be put to the test by Maks van Dyk, who recently played Super Rugby for the Cheetahs.
Fourie said: “We don’t target individuals in any of our games. Instead, we focus on what we need to do as a team. Obviously we fancy a game plan where we use our forwards a lot and that is something that we seldom differ from.” - Independent on Saturday