Preview: Sharks v Blues
It's must-win time for the Blues as they face the Sharks in Durban on Saturday, with the hosts hopeful of putting off-field drama to one side.
Coach John Plumtree's premature departure from the Sharks set-up has stolen the headlines in recent days, with the Kiwi paying the price for a poor season as new CEO John Smit wasted no time in making decisive decisions.
It's on the field that Smit - and many ailing Sharks fans - will be hoping to see real change though, with last year's finalists blowing lukewarm and cold thus far this season.
The Sharks' injury list is at last decreasing to a manageable level and they'll need the likes of Bismarck du Plessis, Butch James, Louis Ludik and Cobus Reinach to come out with all guns blazing on their return from injury.
The experience of James at inside centre will be vital for the home side, with stand-in coaches Grant Bashford and Hugh Reece-Edwards desperately needing someone to put their hand up in a leadership capacity that Keegan Daniel has thus far failed to assert himself in this season.
It may be the presence of the bulldozing James inside of him that finally sees Pat Lambie hit his straps after a solid campaign that has yet to really reached the heights many would have hoped.
Unfortunately, it is perhaps an indictment of the predicament that the Sharks find themselves in that a 34-year-old fly-half, wearing the number 12 jersey, who is passed his best is being considered as a catalyst for positive change.
Despite this, when in the mood the Sharks can run the ball with great gusto and one hopes that they'll so when the Blues arrive, as the prospect of the two sides running it from end to end is certainly a tantalizing one.
Indeed, the Blues will certainly be looking to not only grab a win but also a four-try bonus point as they look to keep their play-off hopes alive. With the Chiefs out of sight at the top of the New Zealand conference, the Blues are hoping to grab one of the three wildcard spots on offer.
Sir John Kirwan's troops suffered a fate only the Sharks have known this season when they lost to the Highlanders last time out and they'll need to bounce back strongly. Surprisingly the Blues have a poor record against the Sharks, having lost their last eight matches against the men from Durban. Making it nine matches without a win will surely end the Blues' season.
All Blacks Rene Ranger and Keven Mealamu will start from the bench after only arriving in South Africa days after the rest of the squad due to international commitments. Despite this, the Blues still possess a strong looking XV and will most certainly provide some defensive headaches for the Sharks. In fact, the introduction of a player like Ranger when the game has broken up a bit could prove pivotal.
With 35 tries to their name this season, the Blues certainly haven't had any trouble notching up four pointers, but they've also shipped a fair few. It's in defence that they'll need to up their game on Saturday as they can't rely on their ability to shred defences alone to win games.
Prediction: Both teams need the win and if the Sharks class of 2013 are going to prove they're not to be relegated to the ranks of a poor vintage, they'll have to produce a big performance and they will. Sharks by five.
The Sharks: 15 Riaan Viljoen, 14 Odwa Ndungane, 13 Louis Ludick, 12 Butch James, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Pat Lambie, 9 Charl McLeod, 8 Keegan Daniel (c), 7 Willem Alberts, 6 Marcell Coetzee, 5 Franco van der Merwe, 4 Edwin Hewitt, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Kyle Cooper, 1 Tendai Mtawarira
Replacements: 16 Bismarck du Plessis, 17 Danie Mienie/Wiehahn Herbst, 18 Jandre Marais, 19 Jean Deysel, 20 Jacques Botes, 21 Cobus Reinach, 22 Jaco van Tonder
Blues: 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Frank Halai, 13 Jackson Willison, 12 Francis Saili, 11 George Moala, 10 Chris Noakes, 9 Piri Weepu, 8 Peter Saili, 7 Luke Braid, 6 Steven Luatua, 5 Ali Williams (c), 4 Anthony Boric, 3 Angus Ta'avao, 2 James Parsons, 1 Tim Perry.
Replacements: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 Ofa Tu'ungafasi, 18 Kane Barrett / Culum Retallick, 19 Brendon O'Connor, 20 Jamison Gibson-Park, 21 Baden Kerr, 22 Rene Ranger.
Date: Saturday, June 29
Kick-off: 14:50 (12:50 GMT)
Venue: Kings Park, Durban
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Tiaan Jonker (South Africa), Reuben Rossouw (South Africa)
Television match official: Willie Roos (South Africa)