Jannie Du Plessis is a Boer with a point to prove and that could spell bad news for the Lions and, specifically, their loose-head prop Gethin Jenkins when they take on the Sharks in Kings Park tonight.
Du Plessis failed to make the Springboks squad for the Lions series as coach Peter De Villiers opted to designate his captain John Smit, who led the Springboks to the World Cup as a hooker in 2007, as a tight-head prop.
That meant no room for Du Plessis, a situation that was replicated at the Sharks during the Super 14 when Smit was also played at three. It is a catch-22 situation for the Du Plessis family for, if Smit was moved back to hooker, it would mean Jannie’s younger brother Bisamrk making way.
Nonetheless, it adds up to Du Plessis going into this game determined to show De Villiers what he has spurned and the six-foot 19-stone tight-head (a qualified and practising doctor) has the bulk, technical ability and motivation to provide Jenkins with a thorough examination.
It has already been highlighted how Smit could be targeted at the scrum when the Test series begins here on Saturday week and Andrew Sheridan’s powerful performance against the Cheetahs last weekend will be fresh in the minds of Ian McGeechan and his selectors.
Jenkins is an accomplished scrummager, and a better all-round prop than Sheridan, but if Du Plessis gets the nudge on him tonight it will threaten the Welshman’s favouritism for the Test slot.
Deon Carstens is at loose-head having been released from the South Africa squad for the occasion while Skipper Badenhorst is a powerfully built hooker who is said to excel in the basics of scrummaging and lineout throwing.
Second row Steven Sykes learnt his rugby from experienced Springbos Johan Ackermann and Johann Muller, his partner tonight. Muller and Sykes are intensely physical in general play and accomplished ball-winners at lineout time. The Lions are powerful out of touch with Paul O’Connell, Alun-Wyn Jones and Tom Croft in their line-up but should they gain the ascendancy here, the Sharks have lofty veteran Albert van den Berg on the bench.
Another player the Sharks will go after is hooker Lee Mears. They are not big on small men over here, with aggressive mockery the treatment of choice, and Mears has attracted his share of incredulous scorn for his lack of height and bulk.
Mears is a good player, a solid thrower and a dynamo in the loose but one suspects Jerry Flannery would have walked into the Test side but for his pre-tour injury. Additionally, the selectors may also be regretting not calling up Rory Best after Ross Ford twice fired crooked to his two jumper — the gimme ball of lineout throwing — against the Cheetahs.
Mike Phillips and Ronan O’Gara form a potent half-back partnership with the Corkman looking to build on an impressive opening outing and provide the control the Lions lacked last Saturday.
Shane Williams has been trying hard but failing to make an impact and this is his last shot at usurping the consistently excellent Tommy Bowe from the No 14 jersey while expect a big game on the other wing from Luke Fitzgerald in the position where he has excelled all season for Leinster and Ireland.
The likelihood is that a chunk of this side will not feature again until the First Test and a convincing victory here would be the perfect prelude to a week-and-a-half of intense build-up and preparation.
“Geech (McGeechan) has kept guys fresh, kept guys guessing, kept guys interested and it’s been very good for the squad,” said O’Connell yesterday.
“We’re half way through the build-up now and places are still up for grabs. The more our squad believes that, the happier the squad will be and the better the results will be coming up to the First Test.”
Tonight will be a good run-out for the bigger games to come. You’d back the Lions to come through but Jannie Du Plessis and his mates will be asking some tough questions.
SHARKS: S Terblanche; C Jordaan, A Strauss, R Swanepoel, L Vulindlu; M Dumond, R Kockott; D Carstens, S Badenhorst, J Du Plessis, S Sykes, J Muller (capt), J Botes, J Deysel, K Daniel. Reps: C Burden, P Cilliers, A van den Berg, M Rhodes, C MacLeod, G Cronje, L Mzozo.
LIONS: L Byrne; S Williams, B O’Driscoll, J Roberts, L Fitzgerald; R O’Gara, M Phillips; G Jenkins, L Mears, A Jones; P O’Connell (capt), AW Jones; T Croft, D Wallace, J Heaslip. Reps: M Rees, P Vickery, S Shaw, J Worsley, M Blair, R Flutey, J Hook.
Referee: J Kaplan (South Africa)
TV: Sky Sports 2 (6.10pm)
Verdict: Lions\[Prestige\]Story 'lions10' fetched from queue '\BELFAST\WIRE\INM Feeds\Dublin Raw Copy\Sport' on 09/06/2009 19:40:05
Who are they?
The old Natal province, a traditional stronghold of South African rugby, with a large contingent in the Springbok squad.
Famous past names include Joel Stransky, James Small, Gary Teichmann and Percy Montgomery.
How have they fared against the Lions?
They have never beaten the Lions, having faced off on a total of 10 occasions, coming closest in 1924 when they drew 3-3.
Who are their danger men?
Released by the Springboks for this match, Deon Carstens is a powerful loose-head who will be out to do a number on Adam Jones.
On the other side of the scrum, Jannie Du Plessis is a technically excellent scrummager with a definite point to prove, while Rory Kockott is another live wire South African scrum-half who likes to get on the scoreboard.
How did they do in the Super 14 this season?
Won eight out 13 matches. Their last match was a 26-27 defeat to eventual champions Bulls in Durban.
What do they say?
“A tour like this is unique and I think the provinces should be at full strength and less emphasis put on just winning Test matches.
“This series should be a rugby celebration,” said Sharks coach John Plumtree
What do the bookies say?
Sharks 8/1, Lions 1/8, Draw 33/1.