Preview: Sharks vs Cheetahs
The Sharks will focus on one thing and one thing only this weekend - beating the Cheetahs and scoring four tries in the process.
That will be enough for them to progress to the Super Rugby Finals Series for the second time in as many years.
Even though there are theories out there that a sixth place finish (and possible subsequent visit to Canberra rather than Christchurch) will be better than ending fifth, the fact is that the Sharks won’t be able to influence something like this, as they play before the Bulls do.
Yes, there are many permutations out there, but in the end a win over the Cheetahs – who need one victory to make 2012 their best season ever – is what the Sharks are looking for.
The emphasis will be on a continuation of the superb foundation laid by their pack against the Bulls last weekend, as Sharks coach John Plumtree stressed this week.
“The battle is always won upfront in these big games: the scrummaging, the driving lineouts, the intensity of the breakdown,” said Plumtree.
“The Cheetahs have a guy like Heinrich Brüssow who we have to look after, he’s a big threat.
“Our set piece has been going really well, we took some real confidence from our lineout last week, we’ll just have to make sure that as a group, that wasn’t a one-off performance. We have competition coming back into the pack, and if we can get our loosies and locks fit, it will be good for us.”
The Sharks have won their last three matches against the Cheetahs, whose last victory in Durban was also their last against the KwaZulu-Natalians, by 25-20 in February 2010.
Inconsistency has once been the story of the Sharks’ campaign. Much like last year, the Sharks have been frustratingly incoherent and their own worst enemy.
Their performances in the previous two rounds - a shock 38-28 loss to the lowly Lions in which they left Johannesburg empty handed, and a brilliant 32-10 bonus point win over the Bulls - illustrate just how erratic they are.
It’s been a long-standing deficiency in the Sharks’ make-up; 12 months ago they were in the exact same situation, facing a winner-takes-all final round encounter against the Bulls.
The Reds and Hurricanes - being a solitary log point behind the Bulls and Sharks (both on 54 points) - loom large and could yet snatch a play-off place if they pick up maximum points, against the Waratahs and Chiefs respectively, and the South African sides fail to secure bonus point wins over their countrymen (the Lions and Cheetahs).
While it’s highly unlikely that the Hurricanes will manage a full house against the log-leaders, the Reds will be desperate to claim the five log points in front of their home crowd to keep their hopes of retaining their title alive.
The Sharks and Bulls are in the fortunate position that by the time they take to the field, they will know exactly where they stand and what will be required of them to seal their place in the top six.
Neither side would count their chickens before they hatch, though, and will be fully focused on this weekend’s derbies. The Sharks took the full five points in their previous meeting against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein in Round 13, but the match was closer than the 34-20 scoreline suggests as a late try pushed the margin to 14.
The Cheetahs are always up for the trip to Durban and the Sharks will be wary of the threat their visitors pose. There will be no underestimating the Cheetahs but that doesn’t rule out the possibility of another Sharks malfunction.
While the Sharks should by all accounts get the job done, their fickle nature coupled with the various play-off permutations make for an interesting sub-plot to Saturday’s showdown.
Key Battle: Keegan Daniel vs. Heinrich Brussow. Both men are in fine form heading into what will be all action head-to-head battle.
Similar in stature, these two flankers’ conditioning allow them to roam the field and tackle and contest at the breakdown at high intensity for the full 80 minutes.
Last Meeting: Sharks 34-20 Cheetahs (Bloemfontein).
Prediction: The Cheetahs showed surprising efficiency in executing a direct, wet weather game plan for a natural attacking side and will run onto the Kings Park paddock with confidence after their showing against the Stormers.
That being said and provided the same Sharks side (in terms of attitude and accuracy) show up as the one that slaughtered the Bulls, the Cheetahs will have no answer to their hosts’ high-paced, high intensity game. Sharks by 15 points.
Saturday 14 July: Sharks vs. Cheetahs, Durban (17:05)
Sharks: 15 Pat Lambie, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Tim Whitehead, 12 Frans Steyn, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Frederic Michalak, 9 Charl McLeod, 8 Ryan Kankowski 7, Marcell Coetzee, 6 Keegan Daniel (captain), 5 Anton Bresler, 4 Jandre Marais, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Craig Burden, 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Replacements: 16 Bismarck du Plessis, 17 Wiehahn Herbst, 18 Pieter-Steph du Toit/Jean Deysel, 19 Willem Alberts, 20 Jacques Botes, 21 Meyer Bosman/Paul Jordaan, 22 Louis Ludik.
Cheetahs: 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Nico Scheepers, 13 Robert Ebersohn, 12 Barry Geel, 11 Philip Snyman, 10 Riaan Smit, 9 Piet van Zyl, 8 Boom Prinsloo, 7 Pieter Labuschagne, 6 Heinrich Brüssow, 5 Izak van der Westhuizen, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 WP Nel, 2 Adriaan Strauss (captain), 1 Trevor Nyakane.
Replacements: 16 Hercu Liebenberg, 17 Marcel van der Merwe, 18 Waltie Vermeulen, 19 Ashley Johnson, 20 Jacques Coetzee, 21 Sias Ebersohn, 22 Andries Strauss.