Planet Rugby

Preview: Blue Bulls v Sharks

03rd October 2013 10:18

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Heimar Williams of the Sharks scores v Blue Bulls Currie Cup

Gunning for top spot: The Sharks

The Blue Bulls play host to the Sharks at Loftus Versfeld on Friday in what promises to be an intriguing encounter.

While buoyed by their resounding 52-10 win over the Griquas last week, Pine Pienaar's men will be aware that the table-topping Sharks will prove an altogether different proposition.

The home side, who have endured an inconsistent run of results in this year's competition, are currently only six points ahead of the bottom-placed Griquas.

In Pienaar's defence, the Bulls have hit hard by call-ups to the national side and the exodus of experienced players overseas. While a plethora of youngsters are gaining invaluable experience in the world's oldest provincial tournament, their tactical naivety has at times been exposed and their defence has proved porous.

In contrast, while still without a number of their Springbok stalwarts,the Sharks have developed a strong playing identity under Brendan Venter's leadership.

Venter's men have offered more bite on offence and full-back SP Marais continues to impress in the embryonic stages of his Sharks career.

The young Fred Zelinga, who continues in the number 10 jersey, is another man that has further enhanced his credentials. Such is his current rich vein of form that veteran pivot Butch James remains benched.

"I worked with Fred last year and we always knew he was a phenomenal player. We're just very happy to see the way that he's taken the step up," said Sharks head coach Brad Macleod-Henderson.

The fly-half battle is set to prove a mouth-watering contest, with Junior Rugby World Cup-winner Handré Pollard in the opposing number 10 jersey.

While both pivots have shown an ability to release their back-lines at pace and into space, Zelinga has proved far more reliable in front of goal. His tactical kicking has also proved a real strength in his arsenal.

The Bulls have selected an imposing pack, however the visitors are equally adept in the set-phases.

While the Bulls' pack possesses raw bulk, the Sharks loose trio, in particular, offers more mobility and owing to this very factor, they may well dominate the tight-loose exchanges.

As a further sub-plot, veteran flank forward Jaques Botes celebrates a rare milestone on Friday evening.

The former Pumas player will equal Helgard Muller's record 142 Currie Cup appearances.

Like a vintage wine, the 32-year-old Botes seems to improve with age. He possesses a tireless work-rate, an impressive eye for the try-line and a calmness under pressure.

While not one of the most physically-imposing flankers in the modern game, his all-round skill-set is unrivalled.

Meanwhile, Sharks skipper Keegan Daniel will run out for his 100th Currie Cup game for the coastal side.

Prediction: Although the Blue Bulls enjoy home-ground advantage, expect the dangerous Sharks back-line to expose their weaknesses on defence. Sharks by 15 points.

The teams:

Blue Bulls: 15 Jurgen Visser, 14 Akona Ndungane, 13 William Small-Smith, 12 Francois Venter, 11 Bjorn Basson, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Rudy Paige, 8 Jono Ross (c), 7 Jacques du Plessis, 6 Wiaan Liebenberg, 5 David Bulbring, 4 Paul Willemse, 3 Frik Kirsten, 2 Mbongeni Mbonambi, 1 Marcel van der Merwe.
Replacements: 16 Bandise Maku, 17 Dean Greyling, 18 Grant Hattingh, 19 Jacques Engelbrecht, 20 Lohan Jacobs, 21 Ulrich Beyers, 22 Sampie Mastriet.

The Sharks: 15 SP Marais, 14 Odwa Ndungane, 13 Tim Whitehead, 12 Heimar Williams, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Fred Zeilinga, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Keegan Daniel (capt), 7 Jean Deysel, 6 Jacques Botes, 5 Stephan Lewies, 4 Peet Marais, 3 Wiehahn Herbst, 2 Kyle Cooper, 1 Dale Chadwick.
Replacements: 16 Monde Hadebe, 17 Danie Mienie, 18 Edwin Hewitt, 19 Marcell Coetzee, 20 Charl McLeod, 21 Butch James, 22 Louis Ludik.

Date: Friday, October 4
Kick-off: 19:10 local (18:10 BST)
Venue: Loftus Versfeld Stadium, Pretoria
Referee: Marius van der Westhuizen

By Grant Shub

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Currie Cup 2013
Currie Cup Table
PosTeamPPts
1Western Province1037
2Sharks1033
3Cheetahs1026
4Golden Lions1026
5Blue Bulls1017