Big names back for Sharks

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Bismarck du Plessis returns from a four-week suspension and will be available for the team’s tour opener against the Highlanders in Dunedin next Friday, when one would expect the influential hooker to reclaim the No 2 jersey.

This, though, should take nothing away from young Franco Marais, who has quickly climbed his way up the pecking order, and performed admirably in Du Plessis’s absence.

However, considering that experienced lock Marco Wentzel has performed the captaincy role with aplomb over the past couple of weeks, it is likely that the leadership status quo will be maintained.

This would allow Du Plessis to focus on reclaiming his place as the front-line hooker, without having to carry the extra responsibility of captaincy.

Although Francois Steyn is part of the travelling squad, he will only be available for the second tour match against the Hurricanes, which is when he will have completed his five-week suspension for a tip tackle.

His reintegration into the side will be an interesting one considering that the talented André Esterhuizen has shown signs of improvement every week after getting a few starts at inside centre.

Should Esterhuizen do enough to retain his place at 12, there is the possibility that Steyn could be considered at flyhalf, where he played for most of last year’s overseas tour in the absence of the injured Pat Lambie.

However, it has never really been his preferred position, and young Fred Zeilinga has only had limited time to settle into his starting role at flyhalf.

A lot will inevitably depend on how the Sharks’ 10-12 combination fares in next Friday’s tour opener, with the Durban side desperate to end a three-match losing streak.

Besides the availability of Du Plessis and imminent return of Steyn, the Sharks have also now welcomed back JP Pietersen and Stephan Lewies from injury.

Pietersen has missed the past three weeks of action as the result of a pectoral injury, but as the incumbent outside centre it is likely that he will reclaim the No 13 jersey.

Lewies has missed the Super Rugby season so far because of off-season shoulder and knee operations. He will, in fact, be playing in another Vodacom Cup game today before flying out to join the team.

So his return, particularly in light of Wentzel’s crucial role at No 5, is likely to be a more gradual one, with a comeback off the bench the order of the day, at least to begin with.

Although the Sharks have been boosted by the return of those four Springboks, Ryan Kankowski and SP Marais are two significant injury absentees from the touring group.

Kankowski was a late withdrawal because of a troublesome knee injury, and as a result the Sharks will head on tour with just three specialist loose forwards, with lock/flank Etienne Oosthuizen set to provide additional cover.

Apart from the significant loss of Kankowski, SP Marais was ruled out after suffering a knee injury against the Bulls last weekend, so veteran Odwa Ndungane will continue to perform at fullback.

The Sharks do at least have a number of players who could cover at fullback if need be, such as Steyn and Lionel Cronje.

Despite the challenges the Sharks have faced this season, director of rugby Gary Gold said he was really happy with the squad and was looking forward to the tour.

“Tours are funny things, I’ve seen teams in far worse positions than us fight to get back, and we’re not giving up the fight. I believe in this group of guys and I am keen to work with them in adverse times – that’s when you see true warriors come out.

“That’s our challenge. We are down, but we’re not out, and now is the time to stand up and fight back. If we come back fighting in the last six games, we’ll salvage a lot of respect.” - Independent on Saturday

Original source: Big names back for Sharks

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