Preview: Blues v Sharks

Date published: May 22 2014

There will be plenty to play for when the Blues and the Sharks go head to head at North Harbour Stadium on Friday.

There will be plenty to play for when the Blues and the Sharks go head to head at North Harbour Stadium on Friday.

The Sharks will be out to consolidate their spot at the top of the standings while the Blues – who are currently in 10th position – are chasing a play-off spot.

The table-toppers have a five-point lead over the second-placed Chiefs and, with just five rounds of matches left before the play-offs – know that a victory this weekend could help them to secure a home semi-final.

The men from Durban are brimming with confidence after securing a morale-boosting 30-25 victory over the Crusaders in Christchurch last weekend.

That was the Sharks' first triumph over the seven-time champions in Christchurch and also the first time that a South African side beat the Crusaders in New Zealand since 2001.

But despite that result, Sharks boss Jake White is not underestimating the Blues and has said he expects a tough assignment against their hosts.

The Sharks showed great character to beat the Crusaders with 14 men, after Jean Deysel received his marching orders, and even played with 13 men when Willem Alberts was also yellow carded.

Their strength throughout the campaign has been the performance of their forwards, who are a well-drilled unit, who have been dominant in most of their previous matches.

With Springboks like Beast Mtawarira and Bismarck and Jannie du Plessis in their front row and Willem Alberts returning to the back row, after playing several games at lock, their back-line know they can rely on a solid platform from which to attack.

Amongst those backs, Springbok Frans Steyn has impressed since moving to fly-half earlier in the season.

Steyn's kicking – from the tee and out of hand – has been superb for most of the Durban-based outfit's campaign but he against the Crusaders he also caught the eye on the attack.

Steyn showed his brilliance on attack with a fine break and offload which set up S'bura Sithole's try and Blues boss Sir John Kirwan will be aware that if they can keep him quiet his side's chances of winning will improve.

The Blues are a side who have the ability to beat any team, if they are playing to their full potential, as they possess some of the tournament's most potent attacking players.

Back-line players like Ma'a Nonu, Lolagi Visinia and Frank Halai all have the ability to change the course of a game with a moment of brilliance while, up front, Jerome Kaino has delivered impressive performances since returning from a stint in Japan.

Kaino has moved to number eight while Peter Saili is playing at blindside flank and the duo have wreaked havoc as ball-carriers for the Blues.

The home side have also been boosted by the return of regular skipper, and first-choice open side flanker Luke Braid. His battle at the breakdown with Sharks tearaway Jacques Botes will be crucial.

Another facet of play which will have a huge bearing on the result is the match-up in the scrums.

Like the visitors, who have a Springbok front row, the Blues' possess an All Black one with Charlie Faumuina, Keven Mealamu and Tony Woodcock.

Their battle with the Du Plessis brothers and Mtawarira will be fascinating to watch.

Form: The Sharks are on a high after last weekend's 30-25 victory in Christchurch. Prior to that, they kicked off their Australasian tour with a win over the Rebels in Melbourne before losing to the Brumbies in Canberra in Round 13. They have won nine out of 12 matches so far this season and are at the top of the standings with 40 points. The Blues are in 10th spot on the table with five wins, six defeats and one draw. They had a bye last weekend but suffered a 32-20 defeat to the Chiefs in Round 13. That result brought to an end a two-match winning streak in which they secured home victories over the Waratahs and the Reds.

Previous results:

2013: Sharks won 22-20 in Durban
2012: Sharks won 29-23 in Auckland
2011: Sharks won 26-12 in Durban
2010: Sharks won 23-10 in Durban

Prediction: The Blues have been blowing hot and cold this season and can ill afford another defeat as it could ruin their chances of reaching the play-offs. The Sharks will be brimming with confidence after their historical win over the Crusaders and should have too much firepower for their hosts. Sharks to win by five points!

The teams:

Blues: 15 Lolagi Visinia, 14 Frank Halai, 13 Pita Ahki, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Simon Hickey, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Jerome Kaino, 7 Luke Braid (c), 6 Peter Saili, 5 Tom Donnelly, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 Keven Mealamu, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacement: 16 James Parsons, 17 Sam Prattley, 18 Angus Ta'avao, 19 Hayden Triggs, 20 Steven Luatua, 21 Jamison Gibson-Park, 22 Ihaia West, 23 Albert Nikoro.

Sharks: 15 SP Marais, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 S'bura Sithole, 12 Paul Jordaan, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Francois Steyn, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Willem Alberts, 7 Tera Mtembu, 6 Jacques Botes, 5 Stephan Lewies, 4 Etienne Oosthuizen, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis (c), 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Replacements: 16 Kyle Cooper, 17 Dale Chadwick, 18 Lourens Adriaanse, 19 Ryan Kankowski, 20 Keegan Daniel, 21 Charl McLeod, 22 Tim Swiel, 23 Heimar Williams

Date: Friday, 23 May
Venue: North Harbour Stadium, Auckland
Kick-off: 19.35 local (09.35GMT)
Referee: Nick Briant (New Zealand)