The Sharks did enough in the closing hour of their loss to the Chiefs last weekend to suggest they may have rediscovered their attacking mojo and their offensive capabilities have been further boosted ahead of their Vodacom SuperRugby match against the Highlanders in Dunedin on Saturday.
Wings Piet Lindeque and Odwa Ndungane did precious little against the Chiefs, and before that the Sharks had an unsuccessful experiment with “bolter” Sean Robinson, so it will be a great relief for them to have two tried-and-tested Springboks in JP Pietersen and Lwazi Mvovo back this weekend.
The Sharks did not field their best team against the Chiefs, but nevertheless would have been dismayed by their awful start which they saw them concede 24 points in the first 17 minutes. They played superbly thereafter to score four tries and were only denied a second bonus point by an injury-time penalty, but they were not able to catch the defending champions.
The Highlanders, however, are a team that have not won a match this season – and in fact for almost a whole year – and it is not overstating matters to say the Sharks, with several starters back, will be targeting this game as a must-win affair on an overseas tour that sees them taking on the high-flying Reds in Brisbane next week.
The Highlanders are similar to the Sharks in the respect that they too have a star-studded side, but it has just not been able to click. But several things spell danger for the Sharks. The Otago men are at home, they will be refreshed and have had a chance to clear their heads after a bye, and Brad Thorn, an immensely proud All Black, will be playing his 100th SuperRugby match (92 for the Crusaders) alongside similarly fierce, proven competitors in Andrew Hore, Tony Woodcock and Ma’a Nonu.
For all the renewed confidence in terms of attack, the focus for the Sharks must once again be the set-pieces, because it is the pack that anchors their side and the Highlanders are strong up front. Unless they deliver the goods in the primary phases, the Sharks aren’t going to be able to attack effectively no matter who their weapons are.
The Stormers are the other South African team overseas at the moment and they take on the Blues in Auckland. Fortunately they aren’t playing at the daunting Eden Park, but instead at a regional venue in Albany. Nevertheless, it is a clash that should have rugby fans glued to their chairs in front of the TV as the powerful, in-form Stormers take on a hungry Blues team that has retained their attacking prowess but has also been one of the best defensive sides this season.
Bryan Habana will be playing his 50th match for the Stormers and, having appeared 61 times for the Bulls as well, joins former Reds and Force lock Nathan Sharpe as the only players to appear in 50 matches for two franchises. Habana will also be a key man as he marks Frank Halai, one of the leading try-scorers this year.
The Stormers defence has been excellent again this season, conceding just 11 tries, the least in the tournament, and they will need to be at their best against a Blues team that has pace to burn and plenty of vision and skill.
Rene Ranger has been shifted to the wing by the Aucklanders, which has allowed the exciting Francis Saili to come in at outside centre, while fullback Charles Piutau has also been one of the most impressive runners in the tournament this year.
Where the Stormers do have an edge is up front and Eben Etzebeth has returned on the bench to provide them with even more impact in the second half.
The form of Blues veterans Ali Williams and Keven Mealamu has been something of a concern, but the brilliant Steven Luatua has been the outstanding forward and is the frontrunner to fill the shoes of the superb Jerome Kaino in the All Blacks side.
The Stormers tactics should be obvious: The lineout has won 25% of the opposition’s ball so far this season, so the likes of Joe Pietersen, Gary van Aswegen, Dewald Duvenhage and replacements Elton Jantjies and Louis Schreuder will be focusing on the territorial battle, allowing the visitors to pressurise the Blues at the set-piece in their own half.
The fact they are playing in the area of Auckland where most of the South African expatriates live should also help to make the Stormers feel at home.
The Southern Kings have won everyone (except maybe the die-hards in Joburg) over with their committed displays in their debut season of SuperRugby.
They have done a particularly good job against Australian teams and on Saturday they will look to complete an unbeaten sweep against the Force, Rebels, Brumbies and Waratahs when they take on the New South Welshmen in Port Elizabeth.
The Waratahs were irked by what they deemed to be sub-standard refereeing last weekend in their defeat to the Bulls, but this time they have one of the best, the vastly experienced Jonathan Kaplan, in charge.
Kaplan won’t put up with the nonsense they tried at Loftus Versfeld, camping offsides and not releasing in the tackle, so unless the Waratahs sort out their discipline, their hopes in the Australian Conference could be killed off once and for all.
The Kings went to Bloemfontein last weekend and put up a good fight against the Cheetahs, who just had too much pace and attacking skill for them.
The Waratahs attack was way less impressive against the Bulls and, sensibly seeing that all eight have played for the Wallabies, they rely on their pack to get them go-forward.
The Kings went hand-to-hand against the Cheetahs forwards and matched them in all but the breakdowns, and if they get parity again, combined with their never-say-die spirit, they could keep the Waratahs winless in South Africa since May 2009.
The Bulls did what was required of them last weekend to beat the Waratahs, but their opponents on Saturday, the Hurricanes, are much better at keeping the ball alive and stretching defences.
The Bulls have not particularly enjoyed their previous dates with the Hurricanes in Pretoria, losing four of their last seven encounters, including a 37-18 thumping in 2002.
Keeping their defence intact against a team that is most adept with ball in hand will be the focus for the Bulls, and coach Frans Ludeke has included hard-tackling veteran Wynand Olivier at inside centre in place of the injured Jan Serfontein and fetcher-flank Deon Stegmann in an effort to slow down the Hurricanes’ possession at the rucks.
The Hurricanes have arrived in South Africa with wing Julian Savea in tow, fresh from his court appearance on a charge of assaulting his partner, and will be eager to arrest a slide that has seen them lose two of their last three matches, after a four-game winning streak.
The Hurricanes had enough opportunity last weekend to beat the Stormers and they had a strong wind behind them in the first half but didn’t take enough advantage of it.
The Stormers had the kicking game – and the lineout – to keep the Wellingtonians under pressure after the break and there is no doubt the Bulls will be employing similar tactics in the rarefied atmosphere of Loftus Versfeld on Saturday. DM
Stormers (v Blues, Friday 9:35): Joe Pietersen, Gio Aplon, Juan de Jongh, Jean de Villiers, Bryan Habana, Gary van Aswegen, Dewaldt Duvenage, Duane Vermeulen, Rynhardt Elstadt, Siya Kolisi, Andries Bekker, De Kock Steenkamp, Frans Malherbe, Deon Fourie, Steven Kitshoff. Replacements: Scarra Ntubeni, Pat Cilliers, Eben Etzebeth, Nizaam Carr, Louis Schreuder, Elton Jantjies, Damian de Allende.
The Sharks (v Highlanders, Saturday 9:35): Riaan Viljoen, JP Pietersen, Frans Steyn, Meyer Bosman, Lwazi Mvovo, Pat Lambie, Charl McLeod, Lubabalo Mtembu, Marcell Coetzee, Keegan Daniel, Franco van der Merwe, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Jannie du Plessis, Kyle Cooper, Wiehahn Herbst. Replacements: Craig Burden, JC Janse van Rensburg, Anton Bresler, Jean Deysel, Tian Meyer, Piet Lindeque, Odwa Ndungane/Derick Minnie.
Southern Kings (v Waratahs, Saturday 17:05): George Whitehead, Sergeal Petersen, Ronnie Cooke, Andries Strauss, Siyanda Grey, Demetri Catrakilis, Shaun Venter, Jacques Engelbrecht, Wimpie van der Walt, Cornell du Preez, Rynier Bernardo, Steven Sykes, Kevin Buys, Bandise Maku, Schalk Ferreira. Replacements: Virgile Lacombe, Grant Kemp, David Bulbring, Luke Watson, Nicolas Vergallo, Waylon Murray, Siviwe Soyzwapi.
Bulls (v Hurricanes, Saturday 19:10): Jürgen Visser, Akona Ndungane, JJ Engelbrecht, Wynand Olivier, Bjorn Basson, Morné Steyn, Jano Vermaak, Pierre Spies, Dewald Potgieter, Deon Stegmann, Juandré Kruger, Flip van der Merwe, Werner Kruger, Chiliboy Ralepelle, Dean Greyling. Replacements: Willie Wepener, Frik Kirsten, Grant Hattingh, Arno Botha, Francois Hougaard, Louis Fouchè, Lionel Mapoe.
Rebels v Chiefs (Friday, 11:40); Force v Reds (Saturday, 11:40); Brumbies v Crusaders (Sunday, 7:05).