The Cell C Sharks will head to Cape Town on Saturday buoyed by the knowledge that an area of significant weakness in recent times has been bolstered by the return of a key player for Saturday’s Carling Currie Cup semifinal against DHL Western Province.

Thomas du Toit has not played since the home league game against the Vodacom Bulls in Durban as he has been forced to sit out subsequently with a rib injury. The Springbok was set to return in the final league game against Province at Newlands two weeks ago but that match was cancelled due to a Covid outbreak in the Sharks camp.

That Du Toit’s return will be significant to the Sharks’ chances of standing up to the formidable WP forward machine can be gauged from the fact that the Durban side do tend to be much better at scrum time when he is present. The Sharks fronted the Bulls on the day that he was injured and left King’s Park with a narrow win, but subsequent to that their scrumming depth has been cruelly exposed by the Xerox Lions and the Toyota Cheetahs.

The Sharks were shut out of both of those matches on the Highveld by teams that had a strong scrum as the foundation of their quest for victory, but looking back at when Du Toit has been present, something that has been admittedly rare this season, the Sharks have been a different team.

For instance, it was only after Du Toit was forced from the field with an injury that the Sharks scrum crumbled in the Vodacom Super Rugby Unlocked match against the Bulls in Pretoria in late October. And WP coach John Dobson hasn’t forgotten that when his team went to Durban for what turned out to be their final match in the truncated initial Super Rugby season in March, Du Toit and Ox Nche were part of a scrum unit that was a match for his own star-laden scrum.

Another factor that points to a more equal scrum battle in the Newlands match than what might have been anticipated is the confirmed absence of WP Springbok World Cup-winning loosehead prop Steven Kitshoff. The flame-haired forward has been forced out of the game due to Covid protocols and although Dobson is right to say Ali Vermaak won’t let him down, for there are few more underrated players in the South African game than Vermaak, it will make a difference.

“I think Ali will surprise a few people and he was going to start had we played the final league game against the Sharks but Kitsie would have played in this game so you’re right, it is a big loss,” conceded Dobson in a Zoom press conference held at the same time as the Sharks team was announced.

It is not only in the front row with Du Toit’s return that the Sharks have been strengthened at just the right time. Head coach Sean Everitt has been able to select from a full squad after Covid-19 delays allowed those not available to get through the protocols and return for contention.

Lukhanyo Am leads the team with flank Henco Venter again offering support as leader of the forwards.

For his part, Am reckons the delays, cancellations and rescheduling that have meant there has been a three-week break since his team last played have been a blessing in disguise for the Sharks.

“It has given teams a longer period to prepare for the semifinals and to sharpen up on the issues that needed to be improved upon,” he said, before adding that there shouldn’t be a break in momentum.

“With the group we have that’s been together for a long time, missing a week isn’t something that we feel will bite us. It happens normally in season and I still believe it came at the perfect time.

We know what WP’s strengths are in terms of set-piece dominance, they’ve proven it throughout the comp, so from our side, we’ve been working on us mainly, to try strengthen any parts we feel need working on.

“If we’re able to get our own set-piece going and challenge them on theirs, I think it will be a very exciting game to watch.”

CELL C SHARKS TEAM: Aphelele Fassi, Sbu Nkosi, Lukhanyo Am (captain), Marius Louw, Yaw Penxe, Curwin Bosch, Sanele Nohamba, Sikhumbuzo Notshe, Henco Venter, Dylan Richardson, Ruben van Heerden, JJ van der Mescht, Thomas du Toit, Fez Mbatha, Ox Nche. Replacements: Dan Jooste, Mzamo Majola, Michael Kumbirai, Hyron Andrews, Thembelani Bholi, Jaden Hendrikse, Jeremy Ward, Manie Libbok.