The Sharks will be hoping to make up ground on Africa 2 pace-setters the Lions when they host the Waratahs in Durban on Saturday.
With the Jaguares tackling the Lions in the round’s final game, this is an opportunity for the Sharks to possibly move top in their conference.
It won’t be easy, however, as the Waratahs are likely to be much improved from last week’s performance at the Lions, which was impacted by the late withdrawals due to injury of second-row Will Skelton and scrum-half Nick Phipps. The latter returns to the starting XV this week.
Daryl Gibson’s charges are in a similar position to the Sharks as two of their rival countrymen, the Brumbies and Force, collide on Friday. They are currently a point off the Force and Reds in the Australian conference and will know an away victory would do them a power of good.
Previous clashes between the Sharks and Waratahs have provided a mixed bag of results, as the last five meetings have been won by the home side on the day, with the 2009 Waratahs being the last team to win away in this fixture. That will give the Sharks extra confidence along with them having won their last four home games; not since a run of eight successive wins in Durban from 2013 to 2014 have they won more.
And with one win out of two on the road, coach Robert du Preez has understandably been pleased with their season start and hailed his players.
“The effort from the guys to pull of the win last weekend was fantastic and showed the character and fighting spirit amongst this special group of players,” he praised. “That win has definitely motivated us, however it is important that we build on that momentum this week.”
“The Waratahs will want to end their tour on a high and will be a difficult prospect,” he added, with the ‘Tahs having won four of their last seven matches in South Africa. “We’re looking forward to playing at home and the support of our fans will give us added motivation.”
Home field advantage, like in past clashes, could well play a factor on Saturday, but with the Sharks having just got home from Australia it remains to be seen how that affects their showing. The ‘Tahs meanwhile have had the luxury of having a full week on South African soil following that Lions loss. However, they’ll stand little chance if they don’t plug their defensive holes that were evident in Johannesburg.
It’s fascinatingly poised ahead of kick-off and promises to be a tight affair with the result possibly defining seasons even at this early stage. A win for the Sharks would be huge before they host the Kings while the Waratahs will be desperate to avoid an unhappy flight home.
The last time these teams met: These two sides last met in 2015 when the Waratahs came out on top, running out 33-18 winners in Sydney. The home side scored tries through Adam Ashley-Cooper, Taqele Naiyaravoro and Bernard Foley, while Foley also added 18 points from the kicking tee, with the Sharks’ try-scorers being Odwa Ndungane and Frans Steyn. Steyn kicked two penalties and a conversion in the Round 14 fixture.
Players to watch: He’s started the season at his new club in impressive form and Saturday will be another big game for centre Lukhanyo Am. The former Kings man was solid defensively alongside Andre Esterhuizen and also scored the winning try against the Brumbies last week, so will be full of confidence on his home bow. Also keep an eye on fly-half and captain Pat Lambie, who has been in good form so far in 2017.
It has been an excellent start to the season for hooker Tolu Latu as his work at the breakdown has had opposition sides scratching their heads. The Waratahs keep him in midfield in defence to give him as many opportunities to pounce, which he has been doing a great deal so far. The Sharks, if they have done their research, must be wary of the hooker’s threat. If they don’t, he will hurt them again and again.
Team news: The Sharks have stuck with the team that did duty against the Brumbies last week, naming an unchanged matchday 23. Keeping faith in last week’s team that snatched victory when a draw seemed likely, head coach Robert du Preez has decided against tinkering with his XV.
David McDuling will start in the second-row for the Waratahs in Durban, with Will Skelton still sidelined. Skelton continues to experience discomfort with a hamstring injury, paving the way for McDuling to get a start against his former franchise when he runs out at Kings Park. Wallaby scrum-half Nick Phipps returns to the Waratahs’ run-on side after he was forced to miss their Round Two game with an ankle injury.
Form: Five points from two away games is not a bad return for the Sharks as they narrowly lost to the Reds before edging the Brumbies last weekend. A home victory over another Australian franchise, the ‘Tahs, would make their season start look all the more impressive and with Africa 2 rivals the Jaguares and Lions facing off in Buenos Aires, this is a perfect chance to strengthen their position in the standings.
In contrast, results for the Waratahs so far have been somewhat indifferent. A scrappy victory over the Force in Round 1 failed to make a statement and then last week they arrived in Johannesburg injury-hit, which in part led to them being overrun by the Lions who won 55-36.
Prediction: Despite an early-season tour and travel on their plate, the hosts should relish being back in Durban this week. Sharks by ten.
2015: Waratahs won 33-18 in Sydney
2014: Sharks won 32-10 in Durban
2012: Waratahs won 34-30 in Sydney
2011: Sharks won 26-21 in Durban
2010: Waratahs won 25-21 in Sydney
Sharks: 15 Clement Poitrenaud, 14 Kobus van Wyk, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 Andre Esterhuizen, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Patrick Lambie (c), 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Tera Mtembu, 7 Jean-Luc du Preez, 6 Philip van der Walt, 5 Ruan Botha, 4 Stephan Lewies, 3 Coenie Oosthuizen, 2 Franco Marais, 1 Tendai Mtawarira
Replacements: 16 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 17 Thomas du Toit, 18 Lourens Adriaanse, 19 Jean Droste, 20 Jacques Vermeulen, 21 Michael Claassens, 22 Jeremy Ward, 23 Curwin Bosch
Waratahs: 15 Andrew Kellaway, 14 Reece Robinson, 13 Israel Folau, 12 Irae Simone, 11 Rob Horne, 10 Bryce Hegarty, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Michael Wells, 7 Michael Hooper (c), 6 Jack Dempsey, 5 David McDuling, 4 Dean Mumm, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Tolu Latu, 1 Tom Robertson
Replacements: 16 Hugh Roach, 17 Paddy Ryan, 18 David Lolohea, 19 Senio Toleafoa, 20 Maclean Jones, 21 Matt Lucas, 22 David Horwitz, 23 Cameron Clark
Date: Saturday, March 11
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: Willie Vos (South Africa)