The Bull Sharks welcome back Reds representative player Angus Blyth, who has been out with a back injury. PICTURE: Stephen Tremain
By Pat McLeod
The Bull Sharks Premier grade men’s rugby team’s nail-biting finals race has hit a Super hurdle.
With just three matches remaining before the finals, Saturday’s opponents, Wests Bulldogs, have recruited a lengthy squad of contracted Super Rugby AU players from the Melbourne Rebels franchise.
Up to 12 of those players are expected to take the field against Bond on Saturday at Wests Sci-Fleet Stadium. While some of these Rebels players are long-time Bulldogs, the majority are relatively new to the club.
With Covid forcing lockdown in both Sydney and Melbourne, the Rebels players have joined forces with the Bulldogs to gain valuable playing time.
However Wests’ gain is a huge test for Bond at a critical stage of the season.
The Bull Sharks are in a desperate race for a top four spot. They are currently fifth (36 points), with Wests third (41 points) and Brothers fourth (39 points).
“This is a huge game, enormously important,” said Bond head coach Grant Anderson.
“We have been aware of the possibility of the Rebels players turning out for Wests. When we spoke about it at training on Tuesday night the response from our players was very heartening.
“They were excited at the prospect of coming up against a Super Rugby strength team and it was a case of ‘OK, bring it on’.
“They are ready for the challenge. This is a team of aspirational rugby players who want to go to the next level.
“From a coaching perspective and with the short run into the finals, of course I would rather be coming up against the regular Wests team and not one that now includes up to 12 Super Rugby players.
“But it is what it is. We have faced other challenges this season and we are up for this one. If we control the football and take our opportunities we are capable of beating any team in this competition.”
Anderson has been buoyed by the attitude of his players this week after the past two rounds resulted in blow-out defeats.
“I asked the players to own their mistakes and to work hard to remedy them,” he said. “Their response has not surprised me.
“This is a club of honest and open feedback. Several players have put their hand up, openly acknowledged that they have let the team down with their performances and have vowed to improve.
“Just as heartening is the way other players have given them support to help them get better.”
At least there are more pluses than minuses on the injury front this weekend.
The Bull Sharks have lost two quality forwards – hooker Jack Winchester (broken hand) and Number 8 Declan Dinnen (ankle injury).
But coming back are:
Back rower Jake Upfield, voted best Bull Shark forward in 2020;
Second rower Angus Blyth, a Reds player who returns from a back injury;
Winger Rhian Stowers is back in the top grade after returning from injury through Second Grade last weekend;
Former NRL winger Jordan Kahu is back on the First Grade bench after being sidelined with a hamstring injury and nose surgery.
“Of course we will miss players of the quality of Declan and Jack,” said Anderson. “However, coming in are the likes of club stalwart, the very experienced Nick Turner and Nixon Taramai, who was one of our best when he came on last week against UQ.
“Training has been very good this week. The players’ desire to compete has been exceptional and we made some tactical changes, which the players have responded well to.”
It’s a vital game for all Bull Sharks’ teams.
Premier women are in fourth place, but just four points behind ladder leaders Easts. They will be seeking the maximum points against the sixth-placed Wests.
Bond Second grade are second on 40 points, but are part of a tightly packed field of teams jostling for a finals position. Wests are sixth, but just four points adrift (36).
The Bull Sharks third grade (6th) are coming off a good win over UQ last weekend, but face a Bulldogs team that is equal top of the ladder with Souths. Bond will not only need to win their last three games, but also hope other results go their way to be part of the finals in 2021.
Bond Colts 1 are also in a tight race for a top four spot. They are fourth on 45 points, with fifth-placed UQ on 42. So a win over Wests (6th on 37 points) is vital.
The Colts 2 clash is a real season definer. The Bull Sharks are in fifth place (25) against fourth-placed Wests (26).