In-form Sharks up against it
The Sharks left for Durban on Sunday not quite sure how happy they were to be going to Brisbane for Saturday’s first Vodacom Super Rugby Finals Series clash with the Reds.
And with Patrick Lambie ruled out of the tour through injury and Frans Steyn staying behind as per the Sanzar stipulation that a player has to have been contracted to a franchise before the end of April in order to qualify for the play-offs, the Durbanites will be travelling in the position they tend to enjoy – as underdogs.
The Sharks do have the consolation of knowing that in some respects history is on their side for this one. The Sharks' win over the Reds in the inaugural Super 12 season of 1996 was one of very few occasions in the history of the tournament that the home team has been beaten in a knock-out game. Then, as now, the Sharks went into the Brisbane clash as favourites.
But it would be understandable if the Sharks felt they had drawn the short straw once it became clear that the Reds, and not the Brumbies, were the Australian team advancing into the play-off round.
With respect to the Brumbies, the Reds have always been considered the one Aussie team capable of winning the competition, and in recent weeks, as they have returned to full complement, they have started to look like the champion side they are.
They are seldom beaten in Brisbane, and by South African teams even less frequently (though the Stormers did do the trick there this year). While the Sharks beat the Reds in Durban near the start of the competition, the Reds were severely depleted that day – and became even more depleted by injury during the course of the game.
What should be of concern to the Sharks though was the way the Reds played against them before injuries really cut through them – they seemed capable of cutting the Sharks almost at will and built up a big lead before it all went awry for them.
The Sharks though should at least feel a bit different from last year, when they went to Nelson on the south island of New Zealand to play the Crusaders feeling they had already achieved all they were going to in the competition.
Beating the Bulls in the final game of the league stage of 2011 was like winning the final for the Sharks, whereas this time they have been steadily building form and momentum.
The absence of Lambie and Steyn though will be problematic, as they are both influential, and they will also be without the services of young lock Pieter-Steph du Toit.
On the plus side though, they have Beast Mtawarira back after he missed the Cheetahs game through illness and Steven Sykes is also back from injury.
Sharks touring squad: Meyer Bosman, Paul Jordaan, Louis Ludik, Charl McLeod, Frederic Michalak, Lwazi Mvovo, Odwa Ndungane, JP Pietersen, Cobus Reinach, Riaan Viljoen, Tim Whitehead, Willem Alberts, Jacques Botes, Anton Bresler, Craig Burden, Marcell Coetzee, Keegan Daniel (captain), Bismarck du Plessis, Jannie du Plessis, Wiehahn Herbst, Ryan Kankowski, Jandre Marais, Tendai Mtawarira, Steven Sykes.