Sharks don’t want to be fish out of water in heat, altitude against Cheetahs

Sharks' head coach John Plumtree. Photo: Bryan Keane/INPHO/Shutterstock via BackpagePix

Sharks' head coach John Plumtree. Photo: Bryan Keane/INPHO/Shutterstock via BackpagePix

Published Dec 17, 2023


The last time the Sharks travelled to altitude for a 3pm kick-off, they sank without a trace at Loftus Versfeld.

Before that URC match against the Bulls on December 9, coach John Plumtree had played down the twin factors of summer heat and lung-busting altitude, but they have got more than a passing mention from him ahead of Sunday afternoon’s Challenge Cup match against the Cheetahs.

It will be a predicted 31 degrees at kick-off, and bearing in mind that Bloemfontein is higher in altitude than Pretoria (1,395km versus 1,339km), they are factors that cannot be dismissed.

It is also worth noting that the Sharks are travelling from a soggy Durban that has known nothing but rain this month. The players might well be distracted by the yellow globe in the blue sky. Seriously, Plumtree confirmed that the weather had been discussed.

“Playing the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein is always a very tough challenge … it is never an easy place to visit, more so in summer, and the 3pm kick-off makes life a little niggly for us,” the coach said.

“I think the Cheetahs will be hoping we are not in the right place mentally for this challenge, so that has been a big thing for us during our preparation.”

Allied to that is the still painful memory of the Bulls game, which followed a demolition in Durban of the Dragons. Sharks fans thought their team had turned the corner, but the dawn was false.

There was an emphatic reaction to that defeat last week when the Sharks pummelled Pau at Hollywoodbets Kings Park. Now they return to altitude for another 3pm kick-off mindful of how the Bulls brought them down to earth with a thump.

The Cheetahs are at home for the first time since the insult of having to play their Challenge Cup matches in Parma last season. Their European opponents, like Plumtree, know that the Free State Stadium can be niggly.

Plumtree knows from his experience as a Natal player and coach that going to places like Bloemfontein requires a fast and telling start because you are in serious dwang if the home team gets off to a flyer. You don’t want the Cheetahs to get that rarefied wind in their sails.

“We have to start well, for sure, but it is really about us continuing to improve our game,” Plumtree said. “We have had periods when we have been very good and periods that have been the opposite. We want to play consistently well over 80 minutes, with and without the ball.”

Plumtree has stuck with most of the match day-23 that did duty in the 45-5 victory over French side Pau in Durban last weekend. He has made one change each in the pack and backline.

Corne Rahl shifts to the bench to accommodate Le Roux Roets, who gets his first start after the giant lock made his long-awaited return from injury last week. The other change comes on the wing, where Werner Kok has been cleared to start after injury and takes over from Marnus Potgieter.

Young Ethan Hooker gets another chance to impress after a strong showing in his team’s drubbing of Pau. The SA U20 centre featured prominently for the Sharks U20, captaining the side to the SA Rugby U20 Cup title earlier this year.


Sharks: 15 Aphelele Fassi, 14 Werner Kok, 13 Lukhanyo Am (c), 12 Francois Venter, 11 Makazole Mapimpi, 10 Curwin Bosch, 9 Grant Williams, 8 Sikhumbuzo Notshe, 7 Phepsi Buthelezi, 6 James Venter, 5 Le Roux Roets, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Coenie Oosthuizen, 2 Kerron van Vuuren, 1 Ox Nche.

Replacements: 16 Dan Jooste, 17 Ntuthuko Mchunu, 18 Hanro Jacobs, 19 Corne Rahl, 20 Jeandre Labuschagne, 21 Jaden Hendrikse, 22 Lionel Cronje, 23 Ethan Hooker.

Cheetahs: 15 Tapiwa Mafura, 14 Daniel Kasende, 13 Evardi Boshoff, 12 Reinhardt Fortuin, 11 Cohen Jasper, 10 George Lourens, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Jeandre Rudolph, 7 Friedle Olivier, 6 Gideon van der Merwe, 5 Victor Sekekete (c), 4 Rynier Bernardo, 3 Hencus van Wyk, 2 Marnus van der Merwe, 1 Cameron Dawson.

Replacements: 16 Louis van der Westhuizen, 17 Alulutho Tshakweni, 18 Laurence Victor, 19 Carl Wegner, 20 Daniel Maartens, 21 Sibabalo Qoma, 22 Rewan Kruger, 23 Ali Mgijima.

IOL Sport