The accuracy of the Sharks' tactical kicking will be the difference in a hard-fought scrap against the Highlanders this Saturday, writes JON CARDINELLI.
In the previous meeting between these two sides at Kings Park, the Sharks failed to score a single try. Tim Swiel, the starting flyhalf, converted six of his eight attempts on goal, but this could not prevent the Highlanders from romping to a resounding 34-18 victory.
The Sharks pack was outplayed on that occasion, at the scrum, lineout and breakdown. Young Swiel battled behind a retreating pack, took some terrible options with ball in hand, and failed to kick the Sharks into the right areas. He was subbed in just the 55th minute.
The Highlanders made a statement in that clash. The forwards were dominant, while a dangerous back division, led by the irrepressible Ben Smith, proved devastating on the counter-attack.
Smith will be back for the Highlanders this week after missing the last league match against the Crusaders because of a leg ailment. And yet, Smith's return may not be enough to inspire a second-straight win in Durban.
Bismarck du Plessis did not feature in the previous game between these two sides. He will be expected to lend the Sharks an edge at the scrum this Saturday, while his physicality and decision-making at the rucks could yield some important turnovers. The Sharks pack should fire, and the backs should enjoy a decent platform from which to play.
That said, they will need Frans Steyn to kick accurately and win the territorial battle. This was the approach that proved so effective in the Sharks' 34-10 dismantling of the Stormers last Saturday, and Jake White has said publicly that nothing will change when they host the Highlanders in the coming play-off.
Steyn has been a key man for the Sharks in Pat Lambie's absence, and it hasn't surprised to see him retained for this match as the starting flyhalf and primary goal-kicker. While Steyn has missed the most penalty attempts this past season, his record last week was outstanding. He converted seven of his eight attempts at Newlands for a tidy haul of 19 points.
The Sharks will look to win the forward exchanges, to win the necessary territory, and then to take the three points when they are available. A more expansive approach will play into the opposition's hands, and the Sharks will be aware of the fact that the Highlanders have the ability to overturn a big deficit in the space of a few minutes.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: Sharks 10, Highlanders 8
In Durban: Sharks 6, Highlanders 3
SHARKS' STATS THAT MATTER
498 – The number of times they have kicked from hand this season (Rank 1)
357– The number of kicks they have caught (Rank 1)
70 – The number of penalty goals they have kicked (Rank 1)
148 – The number of points Frans Steyn has scored (Rank 6)
Source: Vodacom Rugby Stats App
Sharks – 15 SP Marais, 14 S'bura Sithole, 13 JP Pietersen, 12 Paul Jordaan, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Frans Steyn, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Ryan Kankowski, 7 Willem Alberts, 6 Marcell Coetzee, 5 Stephan Lewies, 4 Anton Bresler, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis (c), 1 Thomas du Toit.
Subs: 16 Kyle Cooper, 17 Dale Chadwick, 18 Lourens Adriaanse, 19 Ettiene Oosthuizen, 20 Jean Deysel, 21 Chark McLeod, 22 Pat Lambie, 23 Tonderai Chavhanga.
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Richard Buckman, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Phil Burleigh, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu (c), 7 Shane Christie, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Jarrad Hoeata, 3 Chris King, 2 Ged Robinson, 1 Kane Hames.
Subts: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Matias Diaz, 18 JP Koen, 19 Josh Bekhuis, 20 Tom Franklin, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Trent Renata, 23 Gareth Evans.
Photo: Gerhard Steenkamp/BackpagePix