Beauden Barrett's distribution and kicking game will prove too hot to handle for the Sharks in the quarter-final in Wellington on Saturday, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Earlier this year, the Hurricanes made the mistake of underestimating the Sharks. Chris Boyd's side went into the conference-stage clash at Kings Park with the wrong attitude, and was duly hammered 32-15 by a more determined and accurate Sharks outfit.
The Hurricanes won't make the same mistake twice. Even though the odds are against the Sharks producing their best performance in a quarter-final staged in far-flung Wellington, the Hurricanes should be going all out to secure this result.
The Lions, of course, will be hoping that the Sharks do them a favour. Wins for the Lions in Johannesburg and the Sharks in Wellington this weekend will see Johan Ackermann's side in a position to host a potential final.
The Hurricanes finished the regular season at the top of the overall standings. If they win the next two playoff matches, they will host the decider at the Cake Tin. At this point, they must be favourites to do so.
While the Sharks have done well to qualify for the playoffs, they aren't title contenders by any stretch of the imagination. They lack the experienced players needed to win a game of this magnitude, especially in the back-row and halfback departments.
Springbok flyhalf Pat Lambie is unavailable due to injury. The Sharks will miss Lourens Adriaanse at the scrums, as the tighthead has opted to remain in South Africa for the birth of his child.
The Hurricanes should have an edge at the breakdowns and collisions. Expect Ardie Savea to play an influential role at the rucks.
The Hurricanes are a different team when Savea starts in that openside flank position. Indeed, their loss to the Highlanders in last year's decider could be partly attributed to Savea's injury-enforced absence.
The Sharks may be encouraged by the Hurricanes' decision to bench Julian Savea. However, the Hurricanes will pose the biggest threat at No 9 and 10 this Saturday.
The Sharks recorded some impressive defensive stats during the regular season. The Durban-based side was ranked third for tackle efficiency (86.8%). Only two teams (the Highlanders and Stormers) conceded fewer tries in the conference stage.
Whether the Sharks defence can stand up to the Hurricanes attack at this point is another story. It's been a long season for Gary Gold's men, and they will be weary after their taxing journey to New Zealand.
It wouldn't surprise to see the Hurricanes targeting the Sharks' No 10 and 12 channels. While Garth April has shown some neat touches on attack in his debut season, he's proved a liability on defence. André Esterhuizen has made the most tackles for his side, but what's concerning is that he's missed more than any other Sharks player (30) and the fifth-most overall.
Expect TJ Perenara and Beauden Barrett to direct the Hurricanes backline down those channels. Expect Barrett, who is starting to find some real form at the business end of the tournament, to take the ball to the gainline and use his deceptive strength and speed to create scoring opportunities.
The Hurricanes enjoy an open game, but they will have learned from their last defeat against the Sharks, as well as from their tactical failure in last year's Super Rugby final.
While they should look to avoid an arm-wrestle with the Sharks, they must strive to play a more balanced game. They will know that the Sharks make more turnovers than any other side, and they will be wary of the visitors converting those turnovers into counter-attacking chances and points. They should be wary of playing too much rugby in their own half.
The Sharks also need to play with more balance in this knockout fixture. While they have a reliable goal-kicker in April, their attack needs to pressure the Hurricanes defence and score tries if the visitors are to obtain a famous win.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: Sharks 11, Hurricanes 8, Draw 1
In New Zealand: Hurricanes 5, Sharks 4, Draw 1
STATS AND FACTS
– The Sharks have won six of their last nine games against the Hurricanes, though only one of those wins came in New Zealand.
– The Hurricanes have lost seven of nine playoff games. However, both those wins were at home.
– The Hurricanes have won three and drawn one of their last five games against the Sharks on home soil, including wins in each of the last two such encounters.
– The Hurricanes have won their last five Super Rugby fixtures.
– The Hurricanes have won eight of their last nine games against South African teams. Their only loss in that span came in the round-11 match against the Sharks.
|Team||Top point-scorer||Top try-scorer||Most metres||Most tackles|
|Hurricanes||Beauden Barrett (184)||Beauden Barrett (7)||Julian Savea (719)||Ardie Savea (164)|
|Sharks||Joe Pietersen (72)||Lwazi Mvovo (5)||Willie le Roux (593)||André Esterhuizen (142)|
Hurricanes – 15 James Marshall, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Matt Proctor, 12 Willis Halaholo, 11 Jason Woodward, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Victor Vito, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Brad Shields, 5 Michael Fatialofa, 4 Vaea Fifita, 3 Ben May, 2 Dane Coles (c), 1 Loni Uhila.
Subs: 16 Ricky Riccitelli, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Mike Kainga, 19 Mark Abbott, 20 Callum Gibbins, 21 Jamison Gibson-Park, 22 Vince Aso, 23 Julian Savea.
Sharks – 15 Willie le Roux, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Paul Jordaan, 12 André Esterhuizen, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Garth April, 9 Michael Claassens, 8 Philip van der Walt, 7 Jean-Luc du Preez, 6 Keegan Daniel, 5 Stephan Lewies, 4 Etienne Oosthuizen, 3 Coenie Oosthuizen, 2 Franco Marais, 1 Beast Mtawarira (c).
Subs: 16 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 17 Dale Chadwick, 18 Thomas du Toit, 19 Hyron Andrews, 20 Tera Mtembu, 21 Stefan Ungerer, 22 Curwin Bosch, 23 Odwa Ndungane.
Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Nick Briant (New Zealand), Paul Williams (New Zealand)
TMO: Glenn Newman (New Zealand)
Photo: Gerhard Duraan/BackpagePix