Ben Smith's return will boost the Highlanders' attack and ultimately their chances of a big win against the Sharks in Dunedin on Friday, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Sharks director of rugby Gary Gold has made several changes for this must-win clash against the Highlanders. The most significant are at openside flank (Keegan Daniel), flyhalf (Garth April) and outside centre (JP Pietersen). It appears as if the Sharks will look to keep the ball in hand at the Forsyth Barr Stadium.
An all-out attacking approach could, however, backfire against the Sharks. The Highlanders are known for their ability to force turnovers at the tackle and in the air. They also possess the ability to turn opposition mistakes into try-scoring chances at the other end of the field.
The Highlanders will look to test the Sharks back three with a series of high-hanging kicks. They have some of the best tactical kickers in the competition in Aaron Smith and Lima Sopoaga. The return of Ben Smith is especially significant, as the All Blacks fullback specialises in retrieving those garryowens and making further inroads into the opposition defence.
While the 2015 champions have a fine reputation for their forward play and tactical kicking, they also boast some of the tournament's best runners and finishers. Malakai Fekitoa is enjoying a strong season with ball in hand, and Ben Smith himself is always a threat when he receives possession in space.
The Sharks may be wary of kicking to Smith at the back, given his ability to counter-attack. After a disappointing showing against the Blues, they may look to keep the ball in hand as much as possible.
However, a reluctance to kick will limit the Sharks' options. If they fail to win territory through an alternate strategy, they may end up spending the bulk of the contest in their own half.
They're coming off a defeat to the Blues. They've gone winless in their last four matches (a draw and three straight losses). They will be desperate to secure a win in Dunedin that will keep their playoff hopes alive.
Unfortunately for the Sharks, the Highlanders won't be in a charitable mood. The Reds shocked the Super Rugby fraternity when they beat the Highlanders 28-27 in round seven. The Highlanders have had a bye to reflect on their shortcomings, and plan for the next clash against the Sharks. They should be going all out to secure the victory and climb the New Zealand conference ladder.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: Sharks 11, Highlanders 9
In Dunedin: Highlanders 6, Sharks 4
STATS AND FACTS
– The Highlanders have won their last three regular season matches against the Sharks, though they suffered a 31-27 loss to the South African team in the 2014 qualifying playoff.
– The Highlanders have won five of their last seven matches against teams from South Africa; that streak has included both a win and a loss against the Sharks.
– The Highlanders have won their last eight matches at home, their longest streak since they won a franchise record 13 straight home games from 2000 to 2002.
– The Sharks have now lost their last three matches despite trailing at the break only once in that span (leading once, level once).
– The Sharks have won 9.3 turnovers per match, the most of any team and 3.4 more per game than the Highlanders (5.9), who have averaged the fewest.
|Team||Top point-scorer||Top try-scorer||Most metres gained||Most tackles|
|Highlanders||Lima Sopoaga (69)||Malakai Fekitoa, Ben Smith, Matt Faddes (3)||Patrick Osborne (433)||Shane Christie (84)|
|Sharks||Joe Pietersen (72)||Lwazi Mvovo (3)||Willie le Roux (432)||Paul Jordaan (81)|
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Matt Faddes, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Jason Emery, 11 Jack Wilson, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Liam Squire, 7 Shane Christie (c), 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Tom Franklin, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Ash Dixon, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Subs: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Craig Millar, 18 Ross Geldenhuys, 19 Alex Ainley, 20 Dan Pryor, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Hayden Parker, 23 Patrick Osborne.
Sharks – 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Odwa Ndungane, 13 JP Pietersen, 12 André Esterhuizen, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Garth April, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Philip van der Walt, 7 Jean-Luc du Preez, 6 Keegan Daniel, 5 Stephan Lewies, 4 Etienne Oosthuizen, 3 Coenie Oosthuizen, 2 Franco Marais, 1 Beast Mtawarira (c).
Subs: 16 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 17 Thomas du Toit, 18 Lourens Adriaanse, 19 Hyron Andrews, 20 Jean Deysel, 21 Michael Claassens, 22 Joe Pietersen, 23 S'bura Sithole.
Referee: Ben O'Keeffe (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Mike Fraser (New Zealand), Kane McBride (New Zealand)
TMO: Shane McDermott (New Zealand)
Photo: Anesh Debiky/AFP Photo