The Rebels travel to Durban this weekend looking for a first-ever win over the Sharks at the fifth time of asking.
Given the Sharks’ start to 2017 and the Rebels form that might seem unlikely on paper, but then no one saw the Rebels win over the Brumbies coming last weekend either.
In a season for the Rebels dominated by off-field headlines regarding their Super Rugby future, that result was sorely needed and the relief on the faces of the players and coach Tony McGahan was crystal clear.
Crossing the Indian Ocean admittedly could have come at a better time after that emotional high but then again the Rebels head to South Africa with little expectation.
And there is talent in this side. Lopeti Timani’s suspension and Sean McMahon’s injury battle means the Rebels are yet to truly unleash their best back row, but the Australian franchise have still proven to be highly efficent at the breakdown.
Tries however are still a big problem. The Rebels have managed just nine all season, which is comfortably the lowest total in Super Rugby. Factor in having never won in South Africa and the odds of an upset look scarce.
Not least because the Sharks, rightly chastised last year for playing an unimaginative brand of rugby that lacked skill, look a reborn side under the guidance of head Robert du Preez.
Curwin Bosch has been a huge part of that. The 19-year-old future Springbok deployed at either full-back or fly-half looks as though he has been playing at this level for about five seasons and has eased the pain of losing Pat Lambie to injury.
Other factors – extra bite in the Sharks set-piece, the signing and tries of Kobus van Wyk, noticeable development in the game of André Esterhuizen – have all helped the Sharks to five wins out of seven and allowed them to apply pressure on the Lions in the Africa 2 Conference.
A confident home win for the Rebels is therefore expected, which means extra pressure, but anything less than a victory here given the Sharks form would come as a major surprise.
Last time the teams met: The Sharks and Rebels scored three tries apiece in Durban but the difference proved to the boot of Lionel Cronjé, the current Kings number ten, which proved to be the difference as the Sharks won 25-21. Cronjé kicked two penalties to go with two conversions as tries from S’bura Sithole, Lwazi Mvovo and Heimar Williams for the hosts were cancelled out by a double from Scott Higginbotham and a score from Bryce Hegarty. Hegarty’s 74th-minute penalty made things interesting with time running out, but the hosts held on.
Players to watch: With the top tackler in the competition Jean-Luc du Preez missing this weekend for the Sharks, his back row colleague and Sharks skipper Tera Mtembu will be charged with leading the defensive efforts in Durban. The 26-year-old has been happy to let others take the limelight while grafting away so far this campaign. A couple of clean breaks against the Jaguares showed what he can do in attack.
For the Rebels in a tough year Reece Hodge has carried on from where he left off in 2016, when the Rebels utility back broke into Wallabies set-up and has never looked back since. Hodge is not only a tough carrier with plenty of pace to cause defences problems, but his monster boot has already knocked over a number of penalties over the last couple of seasons. Not a stretch to bill him as the Rebels’ best player.
Team news: Sharks head coach Robert du Preez has kept changes to a minimum ahead of their Super Rugby game against the Rebels. Up front for the Sharks, there is one change to with Jean-Luc du Preez missing this match due to an ankle niggle. His place in the starting XV will be taken by Philip van der Walt with Jacques Vermeulen providing loose forward cover on the bench. Amongst the backs, there are two positional and just one personnel change. Curwin Bosch returns to fly-half after an enforced late change that saw him shifting to full-back. This week, he plays in the number 10 jersey, with Rhyno Smith taking over the vacated full-back spot.
Melbourne Rebels have made five changes, including three debutants. Injury, suspension and an impending childbirth has forced Rebels head coach Tony McGahan to make changes to the forwards, including uncapped Will Miller at flanker, for the first of two games on South African soil. Miller will become Rebel number 110 while hooker Siliva Siliva and back-rower Jake Schatz will make their first starts for the Rebels after Lopeti Timani (suspended), Dominic Day (injured) and Colby Fainga’a (impending childbirth) are unavailable. The Rebels have named an unchanged backline with captain Nic Stirzaker and Jack Debreczeni to continue their combination while Mitch Inman and Tom English remain in the centres and Reece Hodge at full-back. McGahan has named two uncapped players on the reserves bench with Rebels U20s lock Esei Haangana and Hugh Sinclair included.
Form: The Sharks have won all four previous meetings between these sides, with their 57 point win (64-7) against the Rebels in March 2013 representing their biggest Super Rugby victory. The Sharks have won their last seven home games, their best run since winning eight on the bounce from 2013 to 2014.
The Rebels have won just twice outside of Australia (L25), and have not won in South Africa in 11 attempts. The Sharks have conceded just two tries in the opening quarter of games so far this season, no side has conceded fewer, while the Rebels have scored the joint fewest in that period (3). Ruan Botha has won 37 lineouts this season (incl. steals), more than any other player and 16 more than the Rebels’ top lineout winner Steven Cummins (21).
Prediction: Even with last week’s upset over the Brumbies, this looks like a tall order for the Rebels given the Sharks’ start to the year and their record in South Africa. Sharks by 14.
2015: Sharks won 25-21 in Durban
2014: Sharks won 22-16 in Melbourne
2013: Sharks won 64-7 in Durban
2011: Sharks won 34-32 in Melbourne
Sharks: 15 Rhyno Smith, 14 Kobus van Wyk, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 Andre Esterhuizen, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Curwin Bosch, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Daniel du Preez, 7 Philip van der Walt, 6 Tera Mtembu (c), 5 Stephan Lewies, 4 Etienne Oosthuizen, 3 Coenie Oosthuizen, 2 Franco Marais, 1 Beast Mtawarira
Replacements: 16 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 17 Thomas du Toit, 18 Lourens Adriaanse, 19 Ruan Botha, 20 Jacques Vermeulen, 21 Michael Claassens, 22 Benhard Janse van Rensburg, 23 Jeremy Ward
Melbourne Rebels: 15 Reece Hodge, 14 Sefa Naivalu, 13 Tom English, 12 Mitch Inman, 11 Marika Koroibete, 10 Jack Debreczeni, 9 Nic Stirzaker (c), 8 Amanaki Mafi, 7 Will Miller, 6 Jake Schatz, 5 Culum Retallick, 4 Steve Cummins, 3 Tyrel Lomax, 2 Siliva Siliva, 1 Fereti Sa’aga
Replacements: 16 James Hanson, 17 Laurie Weeks, 18 Tom Moloney, 19 Esei Haangana, 20 Hugh Sinclair, 21 Mick Snowden, 22 Jackson Garden-Bachop, 23 Ben Volavola
Date: Saturday, April 22
Venue: Kings Park, Durban
Kick-off: 19:30 local (17:30 GMT)
Referee: Marius van der Westhuizen (South Africa)
Assistant Referees: Egon Seconds (South Africa), Stuart Berry (South Africa)
TMO: Marius Jonker (South Africa)