Preview: Sharks v Highlanders

Date published: July 18 2014

The Sharks will be carrying the hopes of a nation as they look to salvage South Africa's Super Rugby season in Durban on Saturday.

The Sharks will be carrying the hopes of a nation as they look to salvage South Africa's Super Rugby season in their play-off against the Highlanders at Kings Park on Saturday.

It's been 11 years since South Africa last failed to produce a semi-finalist and after a dismal season for the four other teams from the Republic, the Sharks must now fly the flag alone.

While the media, the bookies and most fans have the newly-crowned SA Conference champions as heavy favourites, Jake White will not need to remind his team that the last time the Highlanders were in Durban, the hosts were on the receiving end of a hiding.

Indeed, the men from Otago are the only team to cross the KwaZulu-Natalians' tryline four times this year. In fact, they are the only team this year to deny the Sharks a solitary championship point in any of their 16 games.

That loss on home soil, back in April, is significant because the Sharks were totally outplayed that day in a four-tries-to-none drubbing that highlighted the limitations of White's conservative gameplan, now referred to in Australia as 'Jakeball.'

It sparked an impressive reaction from White's team as they went on a successful tour directly afterwards, but the way in which the Highlanders cut the normally rock-solid Sharks defence apart will not be quickly forgotten.

Of course, that's all history now. If the Sharks muscle up like they did at Newlands last week, the Highlanders' famed attacking threat will get shut down.

That is the gist of how this game is lining up – the Sharks' massive pack trying to strangle the life out of the Highlanders all-action approach.

White has underlined the fact that play-offs rugby is usually very different to the league stages.

“I find it encouraging that so many of the players in the Sharks team have had experience of playing Test rugby,” said the former Springbok coach on Thursday.

“It's going to be like a Test match, and we almost have a Test team at present. The matches from now on will be like Test matches.

“Because of the pressure that comes with play-off rugby, there will be less running from the 22, fewer chip kicks, and of course because there is no four try bonus point on offer that also means teams tend to take fewer risks.”

The World Cup-winning coach makes a valid point as the Highlanders team is very short of players with big-game experience.

While this will be the third year since the expansion of Super Rugby from 14 to 15 teams in 2011 that the Sharks have made the top six, the Highlanders feature in the knock-out stages for the first time in 12 years.

Only Ben Smith and Aaron Smith have played a significant amount of rugby at the highest level and while Malakai Fekitoa, Nasi Manu and Shane Christie have been sublime all year, it remains to be seen how the likes of Lima Sopoaga and Ged Robinson – who start in key positions – will cope with the pressure.

In stark contrast to their hosts, the Highlanders defence has been frail, with 52 tries leaked in 16 games compared the just 22 by the Sharks.

The match in Durban also features the team which look after their possession the best – the Sharks average 17 minutes and 32 seconds per game – against the team with the least amount of time in possession of the ball – the Highlanders average only 14 minutes per game.

Whatever the result, a game involving the Highlanders is sure to feature plenty of points. As much as they're likely to leak points, they are incredibly difficult to keep at bay.

Fekitoa and the two Smiths in particular have torn defences apart all year. They will be the focus of the Sharks' defensive efforts and White will have stressed the importance of not giving them time and space.

The Sharks are rightly considered favourites but White summed up the situation perfectly in the build when he admitted that “anything can happen on the day.”

“Last year the Brumbies beat the Cheetahs and then the Bulls away to advance to the final. So all the talk about home ground advantage and experience being what it is all about might mean anything because a team can buck the trend on a given day,” he added.

“In the Fifa World Cup the home team, Brazil, lost a semi-final 7-1. Who would have anticipated that?”

Form: The Highlanders are coming off the back of consecutive defeats to the table topping Waratahs and Crusaders. They have lost four of their last five games, although they collected four bonus points in those games. The Sharks' 34-10 victory over the Stormers last week saw them return to winning ways having lost back-to-back South Africa derbies in their previous outings. The Sharks have won six out of eight home games this season having lost to the Highlanders in April and the Stormers in May.

Previous results:
2014: Highlanders won 34-18 in Durban
2013: Highlanders won 25-22 in Dunedin
2012: Sharks won 28-16 in Durban
2010: Sharks won 30-16 in Dunedin

Prediction: If their previous meeting was the only indicator of form, then the Highlanders would be the outstanding favourites. But. The Sharks were probably caught out for being overconfident that day and have since shown that, when the chips are down, their big boys come out on top. Sharks by six points.

The teams:

Sharks: 15 SP Marais, 14 S'bura Sithole, 13 JP Pietersen, 12 Paul Jordaan, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Francois Steyn, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Ryan Kankowski, 7 Willem Alberts, 6 Marcell Coetzee, 5 Stephan Lewies, 4 Anton Bresler, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis (capt), 1 Thomas du Toit.
Replacements: 16 Kyle Cooper, 17 Dale Chadwick, 18 Lourens Adriaanse, 19 Etienne Oosthuizen, 20 Jean Deysel, 21 Charl McLeod, 22 Pat Lambie, 23 Tonderai Chavhanga.

Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Richard Buckman, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Phil Burleigh, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu, 7 Shane Christie, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Jarrad Hoeata, 3 Chris King, 2 Ged Robinson, 1 Kane Hames.
Replacements: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Matias Diaz, 18 JP Koen, 19 Josh Bekhuis, 20 Tom Franklin, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Trent Renata, 23 Gareth Evans.

Date: Saturday 19 July
Venue: Kings park, Durban, South Africa
Kick-off: 17.05 local (15.05 GMT)
Referee: Steve Walsh
Assistant referees: Jaco Peyper, Cobus Wessels