Confident Sharks hope for Springbok boost against Zebre

Lock Emile van Heerden, seen here rising high against Edinburgh, had to leave the field due to illness at half-time, but is set to feature against Zebre. Picture: BackpagePix

Lock Emile van Heerden, seen here rising high against Edinburgh, had to leave the field due to illness at half-time, but is set to feature against Zebre. Picture: BackpagePix

Published Apr 2, 2024


The Sharks are preparing for a couple of weeks with star Springbok lock Eben Etzebeth on the sidelines.

But the fight they showed after losing him at half-time in the weekend’s 23-13 United Rugby Championship victory over Edinburgh – and fellow World Cup-winning prop Vincent Koch before the game started – will serve as inspiration for the Durban outfit in this weekend’s crunch knockout clash.

It was a second successive win in the URC for John Plumtree and his side, but it came at a price, with Etzebeth injuring his ribs ahead of the Challenge Cup knockout encounter against Zebre at Kings Park on Sunday (4pm kick-off).

SA Rugby Player of the Year Etzebeth has been at the heart of the revival of the Sharks since returning from an injury a few weeks ago, but the Sharks will likely play this crucial tie in his absence.

Plumtree was upbeat about his side’s performance, though, despite the Etzebeth disruption, fellow lock Emile van Heerden withdrawing halfway through the Edinburgh game, and Koch pulling out on the morning of the match.

The coach expects Etzebeth to be out for a few weeks, while Koch and Van Heerden had stomach bugs but should be available this weekend.

The illness made its rounds through the Sharks camp last week.

“We are hoping it is just some cartilage. If that is the case, he would be out for two to three weeks,” Plumtree said of Etzebeth’s injury.

“Vincent pulled out with a text (on Saturday morning) saying he was sick … We had to adjust. Emile was vomiting at half-time.

“By that time we had one forward left on the bench. Vincent Tshituka also went down and hurt his knee.

“I am really pleased the boys did not panic, and they adjusted to what was going on.

“It’s a big thing for us, the confidence – you can’t underestimate it in sport. We are working hard, and the leaders are keeping everyone grounded. We know what next week means to us.”

Plumtree said it was not just on the field that the team were connecting, but off it too.

Those connections will be tested on Sunday when they play their round-of-16 game as South Africa’s big hopes to progress to the final in the Challenge Cup.

Zebre, a fellow URC side, find themselves at the foot of the points table in a spot where the Sharks were a couple of weeks ago, having lost their last five matches, including a 20-13 defeat to the Dragons in Wales last Friday.

But the Sharks will know that it can take only one match to get back on the winning side, and Zebre will target a victory at Kings Park.

The hosts will hope that star fullback Aphelele Fassi can continue his good form, after he produced a player-of-the-match display against Edinburgh, including a try.

Plumtree will also have some challenging selection calls to make ahead of the clash.

“There are a few selection issues, and we love that. Who we are going to go for … a couple of players are playing well.”

Thanks to the Sunday kick-off, the players had yesterday off to spend with family before the hard work begins today.

Elsewhere, the Cheetahs will face Clermont at the Stade Marcel-Michelin on Saturday in their away play-off (1.30pm kick-off, SA time).

After playing competitive matches in the SA Cup over the last few weeks, they will have to adjust to the demands of European rugby again.

It will be difficult for the Bloemfontein side, who are still without a permanent head coach after the resignation of Hawies Fourie a couple of months ago.

But they have the players at their disposal to topple the French club.

The SA Cup, where they’ve beaten the Boland Cavaliers (38-7) and Leopards (76-5), is not the ideal preparation to face a French Top 14 side, but they will have to find a way to overcome these obstacles in this week of preparation.

A spot in the quarter-final awaits if they can triumph away from home on Saturday.