The Sharks need their best player and captain to fire if they're to defy the odds and win the semi-final in Christchurch, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Everybody has been looking for signs and omens in the build-up to the play-off in New Zealand. The Crusaders will feel confident given they have never lost a play-off match in Christchurch, and that they have three of the world's best players – Richie McCaw, Kieran Read, and Dan Carter – fit and available for the coming clash.
The Cantabrians watched last Saturday's play-off in Durban from their living rooms in New Zealand. These players put up their feet while the Sharks were made to fight for a narrow 31-27 win over the Highlanders.
That same battered Sharks team has now been forced to travel from Durban to Christchurch, a journey that would have sapped their strength significantly.
And yet, the optimists do have cause to believe an upset is possible. This past May, the Sharks became only the second South African team to beat the Crusaders in New Zealand. What marked that victory as miraculous was the fact the Sharks finished the game with 14 men, and scored a try in the dying minutes.
This Crusaders side is stacked with special players, many of whom are All Blacks. That said, the Sharks boast their fair share of Test stars, none better than the skipper, Bismarck du Plessis.
If South African rugby fans are looking for another positive sign, Du Plessis's 2014 record makes for encouraging reading. The Sharks have won 12 of the 15 games in which their inspirational captain has started.
Du Plessis has not lost to a New Zealand team in 2014. The Sharks went down to the Highlanders during the league stage, and it's fair to say that they missed Du Plessis, who was unavailable for that contest.
Marcell Coetzee has been in outstanding form at the breakdown, while Willem Alberts has provided the necessary grunt at the gainline. However, it is Du Plessis's fetching prowess at the ruck that has enhanced the Sharks' defence. As the stats confirm, Du Plessis is right up there with the best in the tournament in terms of turnovers.
The Sharks need Du Plessis to produce another physical and accurate display at the breakdown this week. The Crusaders will have two of the best fetchers in Super Rugby, McCaw and Matt Todd, operating in tandem. Du Plessis has to win the battle on the ground.
Jannie du Plessis has been in powerful scrummaging form on the tighthead side. However, few will argue that it's the younger Du Plessis who has been the key to the Sharks' set-piece success. Bismarck has a massive role to play at the scrum this Saturday against a Crusaders pack that features eight All Blacks.
This could also be the moment where Du Plessis makes his mark as a captain. The Bulls lost to the Brumbies in last year's semi-finals when their skipper, Dewald Potgieter, turned down several shots on goal. Knowing when to push for the try, and when to take the three points is a skill in itself. Du Plessis needs to get this right in Christchurch.
It's been a long season, and travel fatigue will be a factor in the dying minutes. The Sharks have to build a substantial lead in the first half. They cannot leave themselves with too much to do in the final quarter.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: Crusaders 14, Sharks 5, Draw 1
In Christchurch: Crusaders 10, Sharks 1, Draw 1
DU PLESSIS'S STATS THAT MATTER
16 – The number of turnovers he's made in 2014 (Rank 6)
12 – The number of games the Sharks have won this season (out of 15) when Du Plessis has started
1,144 – The number of minutes he's played in Super Rugby in 2014 (Rank 49)
Source: Vodacom Rugby Stats App
Crusaders – 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Kieron Fonotia, 13 Ryan Crotty, 12 Dan Carter, 11 Nemani Nadolo, 10 Colin Slade, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Matt Todd, 6 Richie McCaw, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Dominic Bird, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Corey Flynn , 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Subs: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Joe Moody, 18 Nepo Laulala, 19 Jimmy Tupou, 20 Jordan Taufua, 21 Willi Heinz, 22 Tom Taylor, 23 Johnny McNicholl.
Sharks – 15 SP Marais, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Paul Jordaan, 12 Frans Steyn, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Pat Lambie, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Ryan Kankowski, 7 Jean Deysel, 6 Marcell Coetzee, 5 Stephan Lewies, 4 Willem Alberts, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis (c), 1 Thomas du Toit.
Subs: 16 Kyle Cooper, 17 Dale Chadwick, 18 Lourens Adriaanse, 19 Etienne Oosthuizen, 20 Tera Mtembu, 21 Charl McLeod, 22 S'bura Sithole, 23 Tonderai Chavhanga.
Photo: Martin Hunter/Getty Images