Time for Sharks to find some bite

Springbok prop Vincent Koch is set to finally make his Sharks debut against Ulster tomorrow. Photo: BackpagePix

Springbok prop Vincent Koch is set to finally make his Sharks debut against Ulster tomorrow. Photo: BackpagePix

Published Mar 22, 2024


It was in October 2022 that Ulster came to Durban to play a Sharks team that were in hot form after smashing the Glasgow Warriors the week before.

The Shark Tank was all dressed up for the match against the Belfast side because the fixture doubled as the annual “SharkFest Mardi Gras” – but ultimately nobody would go because the Ulstermen cried off with illness.

At 3pm on the Friday, the Sharks got the message that Ulster were stricken with a tummy bug in their uMhlanga Rocks hotel.

So, too, were the Glasgow Warriors, who had stayed in Durban ahead of their match against the Lions.

The polluted Durban sea was blamed for two sets of players becoming ill in one venue, but this was never proved.

The Sharks were furious on two accounts. First, they felt Ulster could have let them know sooner so stall holders did not waste the food and wares they had prepared, which hit them in the pocket.

But from a rugby point of view, the Sharks were miffed because they were in the rare situation of having a team packed to the hilt with Springboks, and they desperately needed the log points to try qualify for the URC play-offs.

Eben Etzebeth had made his Sharks debut against Glasgow the week before, and won the player-of-the- match award.

The Sharks were very impressive in that match, and it was likely their momentum would have taken them to a good win over Ulster.

Some 18 months later, on the eve of tomorrow’s United Rugby Championship match against Ulster at Kings Park (3pm kick-off), Etzebeth spoke to the media and he warned the Northern Ireland team that the Sharks were once more at full strength and, ominously, were sick and tired of losing.

Talk is cheap, but when it comes from Etzebeth, it has much greater value.

When the two-time SA Rugby Player of the Year says that excuses must go to the rubbish bin and it is time for the team to deliver, you get the feeling that the Sharks are going to perform.

The 32-year-old No 4 lock is not accustomed to a losing culture, and he will single-handedly try to change it in his comeback match for the Sharks.

And Etzebeth will have quality support in fellow World Cup winners Vincent Koch, who will be making his Sharks debut, Ox Nche, Bongi Mbonambi, Ntuthuko Mchunu, Jaden Hendrikse, Grant Williams, Makazole Mapimpi and Lukhanyo Am.

With their strongest available team, and being at home, if the Sharks do not beat Ulster for the first time, then they might as well give up.

Ulster are a strong Irish team – and have Springbok loosehead prop Steven Kitshoff in their travelling squad in SA – but they are not Leinster or Munster, and a desperate, full-strength Sharks team should win in Durban.

In the previous two encounters, Ulster won 24-21 in Belfast in May 2022, and last February, an under-strength Sharks team lost 34-21 at Kings Park.

Also, the Sharks have much to play for, even though qualification for the URC play-offs is a lost cause.

In the words of Etzebeth: “Unfortunately the URC is gone for us, but we are heavily targeting the Challenge Cup because if we win it, we go automatically through to the Champions Cup (through the back door).

“But to win it, we have to be in form, and that is why it is so important that we use the remaining URC matches to get our game right and build momentum.

“To be honest, we have under-performed as a team, and there can be no more talking. It is time to deliver.”