Nehe Milner-Skudder and the Hurricanes wingers will have a game-shaping role to play when the log-leaders host the Sharks in Wellington this Saturday, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The Hurricanes certainly aren't short on confidence. Key playmaker and goal-kicker Beauden Barrett has been ruled out with a knee injury, and yet, coach Chris Boyd has identified this game as an opportunity to rest two other All Blacks. The hard-running Julian Savea as well as the innovative TJ Perenara will play no part in Saturday's big clash.
But then the Hurricanes can afford to be a little cocky. They've won nine out of 10 matches this season. They've struck a great balance between attack and defence. While Barrett has been influential at flyhalf, it would be remiss of us not to acknowledge the stellar contributions of the other players. Indeed, even without the likes of Barrett, Perenara, and Savea, the Hurricanes still look a dangerous unit.
Cocky shouldn't be read as complacent. Former Sharks coach John Plumtree is in charge of the Hurricanes forwards these days. Plumtree has transformed the Hurricanes pack into a competitive unit across the respective departments. Given his previous affiliation with the Sharks, and possibly because of Plumtree's acrimonious parting with the Durban side in 2013, the Hurricanes forwards will look to make a statement against their Sharks counterparts. They won't want for motivation in this clash.
What's more, the Hurricanes will be up against a Sharks side that's on the opposite end of the spectrum. The Sharks have battled for form and results in 2015, and have been further hampered by injuries and suspensions.
Frans Steyn returns to the starting backline this weekend having served his sentence for foul play. However, that back division is very different to the combination that started four weeks ago.
Cobus Reinach and Pat Lambie are unavailable due to injuries, and it's clear that director of rugby Gary Gold has little faith in the second-choice halfback combination of Conrad Hoffmann and Fred Zeilinga. Stefan Ungerer will start at No 9 and Lionel Cronje at 10 this weekend. It will be the first time either player has started for the Sharks this season.
Out wide, Lwazi Mvovo has been moved to fullback, with Odwa Ndungane reverting to the wing. JP Pietersen remains at No 13. It's a backline that looks a good attacking prospect on paper, and gives an insight into how the Sharks may play at the Cake Tin. They certainly have nothing to lose at this point.
But that may well play into the Hurricanes' hands. Even without Perenara and Barrett, the Hurricanes are a feared attacking unit. They are especially lethal from broken play, and there should be opportunities to counter-attack if the inexperienced Sharks backline combination makes handling errors.
Milner-Skudder has enjoyed a great season to date, and will be a handful for the Sharks defence in the wider channels. Cory Jane and the underrated Matt Proctor also have the potential to unlock the Sharks defence. All three are excellent finishers as well as playmakers. If they get a chance, you would expect them to capitalise.
Some have focused on the return of Springbok prop Jannie du Plessis as significant. The Du Plessis brothers will combine with Beast Mtawarira in the Sharks front-row, and in theory the Sharks should ask some questions of the Hurricanes at scrum-time.
But it's hard to be optimistic when you run the rule over the rest of that Sharks pack. Gold has selected two specialist No 5s in the second row, while Ettienne Oosthuizen is at No 7 and Renaldo Bothma at 8. Willem Alberts is unavailable due to an ankle injury, and the Sharks will miss the Bok enforcer's ball-carrying and big-hitting at the gainline. They will struggle to stifle the Hurricanes' momentum at the collisions and breakdowns.
The Hurricanes will be looking for a four-try bonus-point victory. Despite the absence of three key All Blacks, they still have sufficient firepower to blow this weakened Sharks side off the park.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: Hurricanes 7, Sharks 10, Draw 1
In New Zealand: Hurricanes 4, Sharks 4, Draw 1
STATS AND FACTS
– The Hurricanes are aiming to become the first side to notch 10 wins this year. They last won 10 in a campaign in 2012 but did not claim that 10th victory until the final game of the regular season
– The home side has won just one of their last seven against the Sharks
– The Sharks have lost four in a row, their worst run of form since May 2013 (L5)
– Julian Savea (17) is ranked second for clean breaks this season
– The Hurricanes have forced the most missed tackles from their opponents this season (22.7 per game) The Sharks have averaged the most missed tackles (22.5)
|Team||Top point-scorer||Top try-scorer||Most metres gained||Most tackles|
|Hurricanes||Beauden Barrett (110)||TJ Perenara (7)||Julian Savea (735)||Brad Shields (113)|
|Sharks||Pat Lambie (93)||Marcell Coetzee (5)||SP Marais (701)||Renaldo Bothma (74)|
Hurricanes – 15 Nehe Milner-Skudder, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Conrad Smith (c), 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Matt Proctor, 10 James Marshall, 9 Chris Smylie, 8 Victor Vito, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Blade Thomson, 5 James Broadhurst, 4 Jeremy Thrush, 3 Ben Franks, 2 Motu Matu'u, 1 Chris Eves.
Subs: 16 Brayden Mitchell, 17 Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, 18 Reggie Goodes, 19 Callum Gibbins, 20 Brad Shields, 21 Frae Wilson, 22 Otere Black, 23 Rey Lee-Lo.
Sharks – 15 Lwazi Mvovo, 14 Odwa Ndungane, 13 JP Pietersen, 12 Frans Steyn, 11 S'bura Sithole, 10 Lionel Cronjé, 9 Stefan Ungerer, 8 Renaldo Bothma, 7 Etienne Oosthuizen, 6 Marcell Coetzee, 5 Marco Wentzel (c), 4 Stephan Lewies, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Beast Mtawarira.
Subs: 16 Franco Marais, 17 Dale Chadwick, 18 Lourens Adriaanse, 19 Mouritz Botha, 20 Kyle Cooper, 21 Conrad Hoffmann, 22 André Esterhuizen, 23 Waylon Murray.
Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images