The Sharks forwards hold the key to an unlikely victory against the white-hot Crusaders in Christchurch this Saturday, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The odds are certainly against the Sharks winning this weekend and advancing to the Super Rugby semi-finals. The last South African side to win in Christchurch was the Sharks class of 2014. No South African team, however, has ever won a knockout match in New Zealand.
That said, there are a few reasons for the Sharks to believe that a strong performance, and perhaps an upset win, is possible.
History, and indeed travel fatigue, will be against them this week. That said, they may take some confidence from the fact that they’ve won two of their three games against Kiwi opposition this season, and are the only South African side to win in New Zealand to date.
The Sharks needed a favour from the Highlanders to progress to the playoffs. Their attack, and indeed their composure in tight games, has let them down. There are a few areas of the game, however, in which they have impressed.
No team has missed fewer tackles than the Sharks this season or boasted a better tackle success-rate (85%). They were also the top team in terms of turnovers across the conference stage.
With regards to kicking, they were second only to the Chiefs for total kick metres, a stat which highlights their drive to dominate territory. Flyhalf Robert du Preez boasts a goal-kicking success-rate of 86%, and has already accumulated 210 points this season – 18 more than the next best player.
A few weeks ago, the Sharks let a golden opportunity slip when they lost to the Stormers at Newlands. After that game, assistant coach Dick Muir spoke about his team’s success against the New Zealand teams over the course of the conference stage, and how that gave the side confidence ahead of a potential meeting with a Kiwi side in the playoffs.
The Sharks dominated the Blues earlier this season. Most will applaud the 63 points as well as the six tries they scored in Auckland, but something should also be read into the 148 tackles they made over the course of that contest. The following week, the Sharks scored four tries and made 160 tackles in the narrow 38-37 loss to the Hurricanes in Wellington.
The Sharks made 131 tackles and as many as 10 turnovers in their 28-24 win over the Chiefs in Durban. On that occasion, their attack complemented their defence, as they put three tries past one of the better defensive teams in the tournament.
The Crusaders, who will host the Sharks for the first time since the 2014 quarter-final, will demand more of Robert du Preez’s side this Saturday.
The Crusaders have evolved since winning the title in 2017. They’ve added more to their game this season, and the move to progress hasn’t cost them in terms of results when one considers that their conference stage win record reads 14-2.
Their attacking stats make for intimidating reading if you’re a South African rugby fan. The Crusaders were the joint-top try scorers (along with the Lions) with 77 five-pointers after 16 games. Much of their attacking success has been down to their power and precision at the set pieces. As many as 34 of their 77 tries (44%) have been scored from the first phase, and no team has scored more in this manner.
The Sharks will need to produce a superior performance at the set pieces to keep the Crusaders honest. Lock Ruan Botha, who is ranked fifth in the tournament for lineout steals, will have to play his part in disrupting that well-oiled mauling machine.
Their fitness will also be under scrutiny against a Crusaders side that quite literally fires for 80 minutes of a contest. No team has scored more tries (20) during the first quarter this season. The Crusaders are the joint-leaders (with the Lions) in terms of tries scored in the last 20 minutes of a game (23).
Photo: Anesh Debiky/AFP/Getty Images