Acid test for new-look Sharks

A new-look pack and coaching staff will face their first significant overseas challenge when the Sharks front the Highlanders in Dunedin on Friday, writes JON CARDINELLI.

Thanks to loadshedding, many South African rugby fans were spared the chore of watching the Sharks tackle the Vodacom Bulls in the first half of last week’s opener at King’s Park. The humid conditions prescribed a more tactical approach and handling errors on both sides contributed to a stop-start contest.

Those who caught the second half would have noted the Sharks’ improved physicality and execution. Whereas the Bulls and Morne Steyn, in particular, dictated proceedings in the first stanza, the Sharks dominated territory and took the bulk of their chances in the second.

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That second-half performance would have boosted the confidence of a Sharks set-up that boasts a number of new faces. While Sean Everitt has been in the Sharks system for some time, 2020 marks his first season at the helm of a Super Rugby franchise. The backline boasts a familiar look in terms of personnel, but the forwards have integrated the likes of James Venter and Sikhumbuzo Notshe into their starting eight.

The Bulls applied the squeeze on the Sharks’ lineout last week. The Highlanders – who had a bye in round one – would have noted that and will surely look to target the visitors in that area on Friday.

The biggest battle will be at the breakdown, though. New Zealand teams have long set the standard in this area, and this match will show where that Sharks back-row combination of Venter, Tyler Paul and Notshe – as well as the rest of the side – stands in terms of the war for the ball on the ground.

Everitt has made mention on Venter’s progress. The openside flank could prove a key acquisition for the Sharks in 2020, and it will be interesting to see how he measures up to Highlanders skipper James Lentjes.

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The Sharks have to win the forward battles this Friday. They can’t allow the Highlanders to get on to the front foot and implement their direct approach. They can’t allow All Blacks scrumhalf Aaron Smith and co to roll out that dangerous kick-chase strategy.

The Sharks may miss Sbu Nkosi under the high ball. The Springbok wing has been ruled out this week due to injury, and the onus will be on Madosh Tambwe – who was recently moved to the Sharks from the Lions – and others in the back three to diffuse the high bombs.

Winning the set pieces and the breakdowns would go a long way toward winning the game. The Sharks have some potent individual runners and a master from broken play in Curwin Bosch. The flyhalf should also have a key role to play in driving the Highlanders back with his formidable kicking boot.

The Sharks have won their last two matches against the Highlanders. Overall, they’ve won five out of 11 matches against the Dunedin-based side in New Zealand.

A win on Friday would do wonders for the Sharks’ confidence. It would ensure that they take some momentum into the next tour clashes with the Hurricanes, Rebels and Reds.

Highlanders – 15 Josh McKay, 14 Tima Fainga’anuku, 13 Rob Thompson, 12 Josh Ioane, 11 Jona Nareki, 10 Mitch Hunt, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Marino Mikaele Tu’u, 7 James Lentjes (c), 6 Dillon Hunt, 5 Josh Dickson, 4 Pari Pari Parkinson, 3 Siate Tokolahi, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Ayden Johnstone.
Subs:  16 Ash Dixon, 17 Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18 Josh Iosefa-Scott, 19 Jesse Parete, 20 Shannon Frizell, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Michael Collins, 23 Teariki Ben-Nicholas.

Sharks –15 Aphelele Fassi, 14 Madosh Tambwe, 13 Lukhanyo Am (c), 12 Andre Esterhuizen, 11 Makazole Mapimpi, 10 Curwin Bosch, 9 Louis Schreuder, 8 Sikhumbuzo Notshe, 7 Tyler Paul, 6 James Venter, 5 Hyron Andrews, 4 Ruben van Heerden, 3 Thomas du Toit, 2 Kerron van Vuuren, 1 Ox Nche.
Subs: 16 Craig Burden, 17 Juan Schoeman, 18 John-Hubert Meyer, 19 Le Roux Roets, 20 Henco Venter, 21 Sanele Nohamba, 22 Boeta Chamberlain, 23 Jeremy Ward.

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Photo: Steve Haag Sports/Hollywoodbets


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Jon Cardinelli