The Sharks will be looking to Bismarck du Plessis to inspire a morale-boosting win over the Highlanders in Dunedin on Friday, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Earlier this week, the Sharks confirmed that Du Plessis had quit the captaincy in order to concentrate on his own game. And yet, whether he wears the captain's armband or not, Du Plessis's physical performance and decision-making will have a bearing on how the other Sharks fare.
The Sharks are in a difficult position. They need to win to improve their standing on the log. They need to win to alleviate some of the pressure ahead of the most difficult game of their tour, a battle against the table-topping Hurricanes in Wellington.
But in order to win against the combative Highlanders, the Sharks will need to produce a performance that is both aggressive and controlled. They will need experienced Springboks like Du Plessis and Willem Alberts to set the physical example at the collisions and breakdowns. And yet, they will have to be wary of overstepping the mark and conceding penalties and possibly more cards.
The Highlanders will be hurting after last week's 31-18 loss to the Brumbies, Their pack was hammered, particularly at the lineouts and breakdowns. They will be determined to prove a point this Friday, and they will view a game against the misfiring Sharks as a big opportunity to bounce back.
The hosts will be boosted by the return of three All Blacks. Aaron Smith (scrumhalf), Malakai Fekitoa (centre) and Ben Smith (fullback) will all be looking to make an impact on attack. The Highlanders should fancy their chances against a Sharks defence that is statistically the worst in the tournament with 217 missed tackles.
But if the Sharks forwards dominate their Highlanders counterparts, it will limit the attacking space of Smith, Fekitoa, and Smith. If that halfback pairing of Cobus Reinach and Fred Zeilinga kicks accurately, the Sharks defence should be able to cramp the Highlanders back three for room.
The Highlanders' wrecking ball of a winger, Waisake Naholo, will become a factor if he receives a steady supply of front-foot ball. If the Sharks keep the Highlanders pack on the back foot, then Naholo and co will find it harder to breach the defence.
The discipline of the Sharks will also be under scrutiny. They not only run the risk of incurring cards for excess aggression, but points. The Highlanders' Lima Sopoaga has been in good goal-kicking form this season, and will punish the visitors for their transgressions.
Of course, the Highlanders' own discipline and defence hasn't been great in 2015. If the Sharks force the Highlanders to play the game at close quarters, and if the Sharks win the physical battle, then an upset could be on the cards.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: Highlanders 8, Sharks 11
In Dunedin: Highlanders 5, Sharks 4
STATS AND FACTS
– The Highlanders have won their last four games at home against South African sides but three of those wins via a margin of a converted try or less.
– Twelve of the Highlanders’ last 14 home games have been settled by losing bonus point margins (won 10, lost four) and just one of these matches has seen a final points difference hit double figures.
– The Sharks have won four of their last five away games against the Highlanders but the blemish in this run came in their last visit.
– The Sharks are coming off three consecutive defeats; their worst run of form since losing five on the trot in April-May 2013.
– Only the Sharks (21.8) and Cheetahs (21.5) have averaged more missed tackles than the Highlanders (21.2).
|Team||Top point-scorer||Top try-scorer||Most metres gained||Most tackles|
|Highlanders||Lima Sopoaga (82)||Waisake Naholo (7)||Waisake Naholo (777)||Elliot Dixon (97)|
|Sharks||Pat Lambie (93)||Marcell Coetzee (5)||SP Marais (701)||Marcell Coetzee (91)|
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Richard Buckman, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu (c), 7 Dan Pryor, 6 Gareth Evans, 5 Mark Reddish, 4 Tom Franklin, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Kane Hames.
Subs: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Brendon Edmonds, 18 Pingi Tala'apitaga, 19 Joe Latta, 20 Elliot Dixon, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Marty Banks, 23 Jason Emery.
Sharks – 15 Odwa Ndungane, 14 S’bura Sithole, 13 JP Pietersen, 12 André Esterhuizen, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Fred Zeilinga, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Willem Alberts, 7 Renaldo Bothma, 6 Marcell Coetzee, 5 Marco Wentzel (c), 4 Stephan Lewies, 3 Lourens Adriaanse, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Subs: 16 Franco Marais, 17 Dale Chadwick, 18 Matt Stevens, 19 Mouritz Botha, 20 Etienne Oosthuizen, 21 Conrad Hoffmann, 22 Lionel Cronjé, 23 Waylon Murray.
Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images