S15 Preview: Sharks v Highlanders
There is no doubt the Sharks will be favourites, as they were last time, at home against the Highlanders.
The Highlanders, who will make their first appearance in Super Rugby play-offs since 2002, readily admit that the odds are stacked heavily against them.
The Highlanders must overcome the disadvantage of travelling more than 10,000 kilometres from Christchurch – where they lost heavily to the Crusaders last week – via Auckland, Sydney and Johannesburg (where they based themselves this week), to Durban, where they only arrived on Thursday afternoon.
However, Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph feels it is "still better to be on a plane and playing than watching on TV".
In contrast the Sharks, who easily dispatched the Stormers last week and enjoyed home comforts all week, will make their 14th appearance in Super Rugby play-offs.
The newly-crowned South African conference champions are without doubt the most successful team in the history of the competition never to have won the title.
If they want to shed that unwanted tag they will have to overcome a team that upstaged them earlier this year under similar circumstances at Kings Park.
Sharks Director of Rugby Jake White sees it as a "positive" that his team got beaten by the underdog Highlanders back in April.
"In a lot of ways it's probably a good thing for us, a boost, that they beat us," White said of their previous encounter.
"Had we beaten them comfortably, perhaps we would have gone into this game thinking it was a fait accompli.
"Now we get to have another crack at them."
White said there is certainly not a lack of motivation.
"I don't have to talk much this week," he said, adding: "The players will know it's not just going to happen. I think in a lot of ways, we were on a high in that pool game back in April, about to tour, and we ended up losing that game. We'll be a lot more focussed this week."
Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph, also they will not catch the Sharks napping again.
"I think they took us a bit lightly and paid the price," Joseph said in a teleconference call from Durban.
"I don't think they will do that again," Joseph added.
Despite the odds firmly stacked against his team and the star-studded nature of a Sharks team boasting 14 Springboks, Joseph is hopeful of another upset.
"They looked almost unbeatable at the start of the season," the Highlanders mentor said, adding: "They have had a couple of losses in recent times and, though they beat the Stormers well in Cape Town last week, every team in the competition is beatable if you can lift and play well on the day."
However, Joseph and his charges must first overcome the slump in form that beset them in the past fortnight.
"The last two weeks, particularly up front, we haven't performed that well," he said of a pack of forwards that was "ordinary" to say the least.
"We need to start well and get our game going. It is worth keeping in mind our last two games were against the top two teams in the competition – the table-topping Waratahs [a 16-44 loss in Sydney] and the Crusaders [a 8-34 defeat in Christchurch].
"That [the defeats] all came down to the fact that we couldn't get our game going from the start."
Players to watch:
For the Sharks: He may be on the bench and will only be introduced in the second half, but the return from injury of Patrick Lambie is sure to get plenty of attention. Frans Steyn, at flyhalf, remains an enigma – talent in abundance, but not always consistent. The loose forwards – Ryan Kankowski, Willem Alberts and Marcell Coetzee – will be key, as will be the discipline of Jannie and Bismarck du Plessis.
For the Highlanders: The return of All Black fullback Ben Smith has caused more than just a stir in Durban and Dunedin. Midfielder Malakai Fekitoa has been one of the finds of the season, while Lima Sopoaga and Aaron Smith are the generals giving direction.
Head to head: The midfield battle between Springbok JP Petersen and All Black Malakai Fekitoa is worth the entry feel alone. The showdown at No.8 is one of contrasting styles – the skill and evasive running of Ryan Kankowski against the brute force of Nasi Manu. Then there are the set pieces – the line-outs where Stephan Lewies and Anton Bresler will take on Joe Wheeler and Jarrad Hoeata, and the scrums where Jannie du Plessis, Bismarck du Plessis and Thomas du Toit seemingly will have an edge over Chris King, Ged Robinson and Kane Hames.
2014: Highlanders won 34-18, Durban
2013: Highlanders won 25-22, Dunedin
2012: Sharks won 28-16, Durban
2010: Sharks won 30-16, Dunedin
2009: Sharks won 23-15, Durban
2008: Sharks won 19-17, Dunedin
2007: Sharks won 23-16, Durban
2006: Sharks won 26-11, Dunedin
2005: Highlanders won 43-7, Durban
2004: Sharks won 36-35, Dunedin
Prediction: The Highlanders are the only team this year to have crossed the Sharks' tryline four times – back in Round 11, when the Highlanders caused a major upset by beating the Sharks 34-18. Only the Bulls (28) have scored fewer tries than the Sharks (29) in 2014. However, they have conceded the fewest tries (22) in Super Rugby. The Sharks conceded 293 points this season, an average of 18.3 per game and the second best defensive record in the competition behind the Waratahs (17 per game, 272 in total). The Sharks averaged more kicks from hand (31.1) per game than any other team this year, whilst their opponents in each match also kicked more often (30.7) than against any other side. The South African outfit turned over the ball more often than any other side in the regular season, averaging 16.6 per game. The Sharks completed fewer tackles per game (84) than any other side this season, while the Highlanders completed the most (131) on average. Despite this, the New Zealanders managed a slightly better success rate (86 percent) than the home side (85 percent). Stephan Lewies produced more line-out catches (77) and steals (10) than any other player in the regular season. Malakai Fekitoa beat 61 defenders in the regular season, at least 10 more than anybody else. Travel is always a major factor this time of the season and this is where the Sharks will have an edge. It will be close, but the Sharks should pull ahead ion the last quarter and win by 10 points or so.
Sharks: 15 SP Marais, 14 Sibusiso Sithole, 13 JP Pietersen, 12 Paul Jordaan, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Frans Steyn, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Ryan Kankowski, 7 Willem Alberts, 6 Marcell Coetzee, 5 Stephan Lewies, 4 Anton Bresler, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis (captain), 1 Thomas du Toit.
Replacements: 16 Kyle Cooper, 17 Dale Chadwick, 18 Lourens Adriaanse, 19 Etienne Oosthuizen, 20 Jean Deysel, 21 Charl McLeod, 22 Pat Lambie, 23 Tonderai Chavhanga.
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (co-captain), 14 Richard Buckman, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Phil Burleigh, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu (co-captain), 7 Shane Christie, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Jarrad Hoeata, 3 Chris King, 2 Ged Robinson, 1 Kane Hames.
Replacements: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Matias Diaz, 18 JP Koen, 19 Josh Bekhuis, 20 Tom Franklin, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Trent Renata, 23 Gareth Evans.
Date: Saturday, July 19
Venue: Kings Park, Durban
Kick-off: 17.05 (03.05, Sunday, July 20 NZT; 01.05, Sunday, July 20 AEST, 15.05 GMT)
Expected weather: Mostly sunny and beautiful. High of 22°C and a low of 10°C
Referee: Steve Walsh (Australia)
Assistant referees: Jaco Peyper (South Africa), Cobus Wessels (South Africa)
TMO: Shaun Veldsman (South Africa)
By Jan de Koning