Crunch time in SA conference battle
The objective for the Sharks this weekend is a simple one – knock over the Crusaders in their Vodacom Super Rugby clash at Kings Park on Friday night and then sit back and hope that the team they consider their biggest rivals for South African conference honours, the DHL Stormers, trip up in Bloemfontein.
The Sharks long ago targeted next week’s trip to Cape Town for their coastal derby against the Stormers as a potential conference clincher. And it could well be that if they win on Friday and the Stormers lose to the Toyota Cheetahs a day later, thus putting a significant gap between the two teams on the conference log.
At the moment that gap is six points, but by Saturday evening it could be nine or 10, which will place massive pressure on the Stormers to avenge their early-season defeat in their return match against their fierce rivals.
It certainly is a different world the Stormers are living in these days compared to the previous two seasons, where it was they who did the early running in the conference and the other teams were forced to face the pressure.
Of course, a win over the Crusaders is no gimme for the Sharks, with the Christchurch team having proved its mettle with significant wins (though for different reasons) over the other two members of the so-called South African big three, the Bulls (home) and the Stormers (away).
The elation they showed at the final whistle in Cape Town showed how much the win there meant to the team, and it may just be that they have now picked up the one win they set as a minimum target for the tour and may be on less of a test match footing in Durban. The Sharks will hope so, and they will also hope that they can reverse the scenario that unfolded when the Brumbies visited South Africa.
Jake White’s team thrashed the Sharks in their opening game, but the Stormers had learned from watching it, and scored a good win over the Australian outfit a week later in Cape Town by applying the lessons that had been absorbed. One thing is for certain against the Crusaders though - the Sharks have to pitch for this one and can’t repeat their no-show of the Brumbies game and expect a different result.
Actually there are two things that are certain - the Sharks also won't be booed by people who live in their region when they arrive at the stadium.
PREVIEWS AND PREDICTIONS (all times CAT, SA, GMT+2)
BLUES v HIGHLANDERS (Auckland, Friday 8:35am)
At some stage those who keep predicting a win for the Highlanders – like I very foolishly did last week – are going to get it right. And last week was desperately close. You could almost say the Highlanders should have won after fighting back from such a big deficit to trail by just one at the end. They had their opportunities to win it, but that is the problem for the Highlanders at the moment – it seems they have forgotten how to win. The Blues have Keven Mealamu on the bench, but at the time of writing there was no indication of what the Highlanders team might look like. At home, the Blues have the edge, but it won’t be by much.
Prediction: Blues by less than 10.
BRUMBIES v SOUTHERN KINGS (Canberra, Friday 10:40am)
Life on the road is tough, and the Southern Kings are finding that out, but maybe not to the extent that some of their detractors might have hoped. They were competitive until the last minutes in Wellington last week, and considering how easily they beat the Bulls the week before and then went on to beat the Stormers in Cape Town, there wasn’t anything disgraceful about the way the Kings lost to the Crusaders either. For this game it does look as though the Brumbies are doing a bit of mix and matching, with some of the top players not playing or on the bench. Christian Lealiifano is at flyhalf instead of inside centre, and there is still no Jesse Mogg. The Kings have shifted Ronnie Cooke to the wing to accommodate the long awaited return of former Sharks and Lions Springbok Waylon Murray in the midfield. The Kings backline looks better equipped than it has thus far in the season, and it says something for how highly Alan Solomons and Matt Sexton must rate their loose-forwards that Jacques Engelbrecht only finds himself on the bench this time. Of course, Cornell du Preez is back from injury. There also appears to be a bit of rotating going on in the front-row, with Kevin Buys and Bandise Maku, regulars up to now, playing off the bench this time. The Kings could well be competitive again, but the Brumbies are almost certain victors.
Prediction: Brumbies by less than 15.
SHARKS v CRUSADERS (Durban, Friday 7:10pm)
Sadly Kings Park has been in the news for all the wrong reasons over the past week or so, and while the loss of a life can never be put on the same level as a sports result, the Durban rugby faithful will be hoping that at least their side will score a win over the Crusaders to bring some much needed cheer. They should have learned enough of the Crusaders’ capabilities by watching them beat the Stormers last week, and the hosts will start as favourites. That said, the lineout capabilities of the Crusaders are worrying. If they can dominate a Stormers formation with Andries Bekker in it, they must have a chance of doing something similar to the Sharks. And the Currie Cup final, where Western Province beat the Sharks chiefly because they bossed the lineouts, is not that long ago to have been completely erased from the memory by coach John Plumtree. They worked hard on that aspect of the game during the off-season, and this is the Sharks’ acid test. Seeing Frans Steyn back at fullback will be interesting, not least because there are many who consider the last line of defence to be Steyn’s best position. He certainly cuts an imposing figure at the back and has all the right attributes, such as safe hands and a booming field kick. The Crusaders are still without Israel Dagg, a late withdrawal last week, but the All Black is on the bench.
Prediction: Sharks by 3 to 10.
HURRICANES v WARATAHS (Wellington, Saturday 8:35am)
You look at the Waratahs team as it lines up and you think to yourself that they have enough raw material to beat the Hurricanes, but the problem is that all season they have flattered only to deceive. They only scraped home in their derby against the struggling Western Force last week, and a flight across the Tasman Sea is unlikely to have been the solution to their lethargy. That said, the Hurricanes have played in fits and starts.
Prediction: Hurricanes by 5 to 12.
WESTERN FORCE v REBELS (Perth, Saturday 10:40am)
There is a temptation to ask “who cares?” The Western Force are once again being slow with the naming of their team, not that it is ever really an exciting event as it contains less interest than you would get from looking at the vast expanses of sand that separate their part of Australia from the east. At home though they should be interested enough to beat the Rebels who aren’t showing sufficient signs of improvement to really justify the Australians having so many teams in the competition.
Prediction: Force to win by less than 10.
TOYOTA CHEETAHS v DHL STORMERS (Bloemfontein, Saturday 5:05pm)
The Cheetahs are resurgent and the Stormers have to face up to the twin obstacles posed by injury and unexpected defeat last time out. The Cheetahs have won four on the trot, and have made just one change for this game, whereas the Stormers were largely forced to make five. I agree completely with Tony Johnson, who in his latest column on supersport.com said “I suspect this one will be won on defence, which tilts it in favour of the Stormers…” It may be close, but my hunch is that the Stormers will have the Cheetahs’ measure and thus set up a coastal derby that could have the magnitude of a conference decider in Cape Town the following week.
Prediction: Stormers by 3 to 10.