There was a setback for the Sharks on Wednesday before Friday’s almighty Super Rugby showdown with the Bulls at Kings Park when all of their suspect players failed fitness tests. That means no Patrick Lambie at fullback – and he was the one player that had been expected to recover from injury – no bulldozing Willem Alberts at loose forward, and no physical presence from the experienced Steven Sykes.
It is nevertheless a formidable side that John Plumtree has picked, and a notable inclusion is recent SA Under-20 star Pieter-Steph du Toit at lock in place of Sykes, where he will partner Anton Bresler. It is an exciting selection where a 19-year-old has been picked ahead of the more experienced Jandre Marais.
With Alberts out, it means a gilt-edged opportunity for Ryan Kankowski, who has been on the outer fringe at the Sharks behind Alberts, Keegan Daniel and Marcell Coetzee, despite being preferred by Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer. Indeed, Kankowski got on the field in the second half of the third Test against England in Port Elizabeth.
At fullback, Lambie’s place is taken by the perfectly capable Louis Ludik. In another change to the backline that played in the Sharks’ last Super Rugby encounter – the disastrous defeat by the Lions in Joburg over a month ago – Paul Jordaan is replaced at outside centre by Tim Whitehead, who proved his fitness following a long-standing groin injury by coming through the friendly against John Smit’s “Barney’s Army”.
He is partnered in the midfield by Francois Steyn, who is making his comeback at the Sharks following a three-year sojourn at Paris club Racing Metro.
Steyn said it had been a hectic few weeks for him in which he had to pack up his life in Paris, return home, play Test match rugby for the Boks (in the first two Tests against England), and plan and prepare for a wedding.
“Hopefully I can concentrate on the rugby now!” the 25-year-old said.
“I’ve been away for a long time, but when I got back on Monday, it didn’t feel like I had been away long. It’s interesting being back, meeting some of the young guys.
“I soon saw that there had been a lot of change in my absence and that JP Pietersen and I are now the seniors in the backline, which is quite scary, but we need to step up and lead the way on the weekend.”
Steyn said that he had watched some of the Sharks’ Super Rugby games from France.
“The younger guys have been playing some great rugby, especially the young locks who have had to perform under a lot of pressure,” he said. “It’s always good to see young guys coming through, that’s a good sign for years to come.”
Having not played Super Rugby for years, Steyn said that he could not have a more physical homecoming than tomorrow’s match against the Bulls.
“I’m definitely going to be sore after this one. It has been a while since I played against Wynand Olivier and Morne Steyn, so it’s a huge challenge for me – but I’m really looking forward to it.”
Sharks: 15 Louis Ludik 14 Lwazi Mvovo 13 Tim Whitehead 12 Francois Steyn 11 JP Pietersen 10 Frederic Michalak 9 Charl McLeod 8 Ryan Kankowski 7 Marcell Coetzee 6 Keegan Daniel (capt) 5 Pieter-Stephanus du Toit 4 Anton Bresler 3 Jannie du Plessis 2 Bismarck du Plessis 1 Tendai Mtawarira. Substitutes: Odwa Ndungane, Meyer Bosman, Jaco Reinach, Jean Deysel, Jandre Marais, Wiehahn Herbst, Craig Burden.