Cronjé can galvanise Sharks

Lionel Cronjé will be looking to build on his impressive performances on tour when the Sharks host the Rebels on Friday night, writes BRENTON CHELIN.

There were very few positives to come out of the Sharks' overseas tour. Gary Gold and his array of coaching staff will point to an improvement in performance and the victory against the Reds to show they're on the right track. The facts tell a different story.

The success in Brisbane was the Sharks' first in seven attempts and prevented them from going through an Australasian tour without a win for the first time in their history. They shipped 127 points in those matches, at an average of just under 32 per game.

While their defence remains as shaky as ever, there were at least signs of life from their attack. The introduction of Stefan Ungerer and Cronjé as a halfback combination following the humiliation against the Highlanders has been largely positive.

Cronjé was not without his errors against the Hurricanes in Wellington, but that was to be expected for a player making his first Vodacom Super Rugby start in almost four years. His performances in the subsequent matches against the Waratahs and Reds give cause for optimism.

Cronjé can be viewed as something of a confidence player. When it's there he can be a match-winner. He showed his full range of skills against the Waratahs, with a beautifully weighted cross-kick setting up a try for Odwa Ndungane, while his offload in the buildup to Frans Steyn's try showed something that has been lacking from the Sharks attack this season.

Ungerer has been equally impressive. His two tries against the Reds were just reward for a well-balanced performance that kept the Reds defence guessing. A local boy made good, he will get his first start in front of the Kings Park faithful on Friday night.

However, the Sharks will be without the influential Marcell Coetzee, who is being rested as per Saru's request. With no natural openside in the loose trio, the Sharks will lean on Bismarck du Plessis at the breakdown. The Springbok hooker was superb against the Reds and is looking to make up for lost time.

The Rebels showed against the Stormers that they are a difficult side to put away. They will be boosted by the return of the dangerous Sefenaia Naivalu, while Laurie Weeks and Toby Smith will bolster their scrum.

They are still on the search for their first win on South African soil, while the Sharks have won 10 of their last 11 home games against Australian opposition. The last meeting between these two in Durban saw the Sharks run in 10 tries on their way to a 64-7 victory.

Given the way the Sharks' season has gone, a similar result isn't expected. But with Cronjé calling the shots at flyhalf, the Sharks may be able to give their dispirited fans something to cheer about.

Overall: Sharks 3, Rebels 0
In Durban: Sharks 1, Rebels 0

– The Sharks have won 10 of the last 11 games when they have hosted Australian opposition.
– The Rebels’ wait for a win in South Africa continues, as they have lost all nine games so far and conceded at least 30 points in eight of those games.
– The Rebels have made the most carries per game this season (123), while only the Cheetahs have made fewer than the Sharks (88).
– The Sharks have kicked from hand a tournament-high 26 times per game, while only the Waratahs have kicked less often than the Rebels (17.2).
– Only the Stormers have conceded more tries in the 20 minutes before half-time than the Sharks (11), while the Rebels have conceded the second most in the 20 minutes after the break (14).

Team Top point-scorer Top try-scorer Most metres gained Most tackles
Sharks Pat Lambie (93) Marcell Coetzee (5) SP Marais (703) Marcell Coetzee (142)
Rebels Mike Harris (111) Sefenaia Naivalu, Dom Sipperley (4) Sefenaia Naivalu (724) Sean McMahon (128)

Sharks – 15 Lwazi Mvovo, 14 Odwa Ndungane, 13 JP Pietersen, 12 André Esterhuizen, 11 S’bura Sithole, 10 Lionel Cronje, 9 Stefan Ungerer, 8 Ryan Kankowski, 7 Willem Alberts/Etienne Oosthuizen, 6 Renaldo Bothma, 5 Marco Wentzel (c), 4 Mouritz Botha, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Subs: 16 Franco Marais, 17 Matt Stevens, 18 Lourens Adriaanse, 19 Lubabalo Mtyanda, 20 Etienne Oosthuizen/Khaya Majola, 21 Conrad Hoffmann, 22 Fred Zeilinga, 23 Heimar Williams.

Rebels – 15 Mike Harris, 14 Dom Shipperley, 13 Sefanaia Naivalu, 12 Mitch Inman, 11 Tom English, 10 Jack Debreczeni, 9 Luke Burgess, 8 Scott Higginbotham, 7 Colby Fainga’a, 6 Sean McMahon, 5 Lopeti Timani, 4 Luke Jones, 3 Laurie Weeks, 2 Pat Leafa, 1 Toby Smith.
Subs: 16 Tom Sexton, 17 Cruze Ah-Nau, 18 Paul Alo-Emile, 19 Cadeyrn Neville, 20 Scott Fuglistaller, 21 Nic Stirzaker, 22 Jordy Reid, 23 Bryce Hegarty.

Referee: Jaco van Heerden (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Rodney Boneparte (South Africa), Ben Crouse (South Africa)
TMO: Marius Jonker (South Africa)

The Money Man's betting tips

SA Rugby magazine's SuperBru predictions

Lions vs Waratahs preview

Stormers vs Cheetahs preview

Brumbies vs Bulls preview

Force vs Reds preview

Highlanders vs Chiefs preview

Crusaders vs Hurricanes preview

Photo: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images