18 July 2014
The Sharks will carry South African hopes at Kings Park stadium in Durban on Saturday evening when they host New Zealand’s Highlanders in the Super Rugby playoffs.
The team from Durban was the only franchise from South Africa to qualify for the playoffs of the southern hemisphere competition after finishing top of the South African conference and third on the overall log.
Qualifier in Canberra
While they have never lifted the Super Rugby title, they have made it through to seven semi-finals and contested four finals, which makes them among the more successful teams in the history of the competition.
While the Sharks face the Highlanders for a place in the semi-finals, the Brumbies and the Chiefs, who met in last year’s final, will do battle in the first of the qualifiers in Canberra. It will be a tough task for the two-time defending champions to win there. They last achieved the feat in 2008 and the Brumbies have won seven of their eight home games at the GIO Stadium this year.
The Sharks have a strong home record, but the Highlanders inflicted the biggest defeat on Jake White’s charges this season, winning 34-18 in Durban where they became the only side to record a four-try bonus point victory over the KwaZulu- Natalians. With that win, the side from the south island was also the only team to deny the Sharks a point in any match.
‘This is a team that can scores tries’
“When they are on song, they can perform. They beat some big teams this year and this is a team that can score tries, they have the players,” White said in a statement on Thursday.
“But, in saying that, the nice thing we have in our favour is that we lost to them. I know I don’t have to talk much this week. 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 focused this week.
“It was probably a good thing for us that they beat us. Had we beaten them comfortably perhaps we would have gone into this game thinking it was a fait accompli. In a lot of ways, we get to have another crack at them,” he concluded.
Clash of styles
The match should produce an interesting clash of styles, with the Sharks having conceded only 22 tries, the lowest number in the Super Rugby competition, and the Highlanders having let in 52, second worst among the teams.
Contrast that with the Sharks scoring only 29 tries, the second lowest number of five-pointers on offence, and the Highlanders scoring 39, and you have distinct differences between the approaches to the game of the two teams.
Underlining this is the fact that the Sharks enjoyed the most possession per game on average and the Highlanders the least.
Defence and firepower
In playoff competition, historically it is defences that rule the roost. However, the Highlanders proved earlier in the season they have the firepower to win in Durban, running in four tries without reply.
The Sharks will have captain Bismarck du Plessis back in their team on Saturday. He missed the loss in April and, as the hooker many regard as the best in the world, he could make a massive difference to the outcome of the showdown.
In their win in Durban earlier in the season, the Highlanders bossed the breakdowns and moved the ball swiftly around the park to outflank the Sharks. With Du Plessis contesting possession on the ground, and an all-Springbok loose trio of Ryan Kankowski, Willem Alberts and Marcell Coetzee, the battle at the breakdown should be more evenly contested and perhaps crucial to the outcome of the game.
CELL C SHARKS: SP Marais, S’bura Sithole, JP Pietersen, Paul Jordaan, Lwazi Mvovo, Frans Steyn, Cobus Reinach, Ryan Kankowski, Willem Alberts, Marcell Coetzee, Stephan Lewies, Anton Bresler, Jannie du Plessis, Bismarck du Plessis (captain), Thomas du Toit. Replacements: Kyle Cooper, Dale Chadwick, Lourens Adriaanse, Ettienne Oosthuizen, Jean Deysel, Charl McLeod, Pat Lambie, Tonderai Chavhanga
HIGHLANDERS: Ben Smith (co-captain), Richard Buckman, Malakai Fekitoa, Phil Burleigh, Patrick Osborne, Lima Sopoaga, Aaron Smith, Nasi Manu (co- captain), Shane Christie, Elliot Dixon, Joe Wheeler, Jarrad Hoeata, Chris King, Ged Robinson, Kane Hames. Replacements: Liam Coltman, Matias Diaz, JP Koen, Josh Bekhuis, Tom Franklin, Fumiaki Tanaka, Trent Renata, Gareth Evans