Jake White has never been one of those coaches who makes excuses, and he refused to use injuries as an excuse for his Cell C Sharks team’s defeat to the Vodacom Bulls as an excuse, but if he was honest he would probably agree that the disruption has come in the area he can least afford it as his team heads into a critical stage of the Vodacom Super Rugby campaign.
Before the season kicked off, White could well have pinpointed flyhalf and No 5 lock as the areas where depth was a concern. He needed Patrick Lambie to be fit for as many games as possible, and Pieter-Steph du Toit was so far ahead of the rest when it came to leading the lineout and posing a threat to opposition ball that he was near to indispensable.
The Sharks have lost both players now, with a scan on Monday likely to confirm the news he would least be wanting to hear – that Lambie has been ruled out of rugby for six weeks with a torn bicep. That is a substantial proportion of the season that the pivot will be missing, and of course Du Toit was already ruled out for the rest of the year with a knee ligament injury picked up before last week’s clash with the Reds.
Although last year’s Western Province under-21 flyhalf Tim Swiel played the last 75 minutes against the Bulls, Fred Zeilinga, who at least boasts experience of winning Currie Cup games for the Sharks, is likely to wear the No 10 against the Waratahs at Growthpoint Kings Park this coming weekend. And Loftus also confirmed that Du Toit is going to be sorely missed too, with the Bulls dominating the lineouts enough for it to be problematic and the Sharks forwards generally not bringing their anticipated physical presence.
There is more than that to concern White ahead of the Waratahs clash. Scrumhalf Cobus Reinach left the field not long after Lambie did, and is expected to be out for a similar time period with a fractured hand. Again, the injury comes in a position where the Sharks can least afford it. If there was an injury at loose-forward, hooker or prop, the Sharks could easily absorb it, but there is not too much back-up at flyhalf, scrumhalf and lock.
Stefan Ungerer will be called up from the Sharks XV that has been doing well in the Vodacom Cup to act as Charl MacLeod’s back-up in the next few weeks. He is a talented youngster, but if MacLeod was to be injured, the halfbacks would be drastically short of experience.
It all adds up to a bit of a sobering reality check for the Sharks, who won four home games with some ease but then came unstuck the first time they travelled away from Durban. The showdown with the Waratahs has suddenly become a massive one, for it has been at this stage of the season that previous Sharks teams have come unstuck.
People tend to forget the beginning point when coaches are axed, but the Sharks actually won their first few games last year too and led the South African conference in the early stages before the wheels came off once injuries made themselves felt. The season ended with John Plumtree not being re-employed for this year.
So for the first time since arriving in Durban the new coach is starting to feel the heat like his predecessors did, and while his men have only suffered one defeat, they will have get back on the winning trail quickly to regain their confidence and to allow the replacement players to settle.
The Sharks worked hard in the pre-season, so they should have the depth to recover the situation, and White agreed that his men should have been able to rise above the disruptions and beat the Bulls if they wanted to justify their status as tournament favourites.
“It changed the game for us and made things a lot tougher (having both halfbacks go off) but we should have been able to recover and we should rather point out that the Bulls were very good on the day,” said White after his team’s 23-19 defeat.
“They took their chances, they defended the breakdowns very well, and they made it hard for us in the set-pieces. Victor Matfield showed his experience in the way he disrupted some of our lineouts. But I am proud of the guys. A lot of teams would have given up after those early injuries. We spoke about it at halftime and agreed to move on as a team.
“Yes, it was tough that we lost them because there were a number of new things we wanted to try that involved Patrick. Then you get a new guy in Tim, and he was understandably quiet. It was not his fault. The Bulls were putting pressure on not only him but the whole team. They are good at home and when they are seriously motivated.”