On Saturday, the only team this year to deny the Sharks a solitary log point in any of their 16 Super Rugby matches to date, the Highlanders, return to Growthpoint Kings Park in Durban for the second Qualifier of 2014. The men from Otago are also the only team this year to cross the KwaZulu-Natalians’ tryline four times. That happened in their Round 11, when the Highlanders caused a major upset by beating the Cell C Sharks by 34-18. It was only their third victory in eight matches in Durban since the inception of the competition and although the Highlanders will be playing in a Vodacom Super Rugby playoff match for the first time in 12 years, they will be confident when they face the Sharks this weekend.
But knock-outs are different. There are no bonus points at stake and all that matters in the end, is getting more points than your opponent. And while the Sharks might not have set the world alight with their attack this year, there is no denying that they had the best defence in the competition – they have conceded only 22 tries in their 16 pool matches, while the next best is 24 conceded by the table-topping Waratahs.
On the other hand, the Highlanders’ defence has been joint second worst in the competition, with 52 tries leaked (the same as the Reds with only the Toyota Cheetahs’ 59 a worst defensive record). This can be ascribed to the men from Otago’s 82% tackle success rate, which is the lowest in the competition this year. On average, the Sharks have conceded 18.3 points per game (293 points in total), which is second best behind the Waratahs’ 17 per game for 272 in total.
The match in Durban also features the team which look after their possession the best – the Sharks’ 17 minutes and 32 seconds on average per game – against the team with the least amount of time in possession of the ball – the Highlanders’ average of only 14 minutes per game. However, Jake White, the Sharks’ Director of Rugby, knows the Highlanders will provide his team with a solid test on Saturday. “When they are on song, they can perform – they beat some big teams this year and this is a team that can score tries, they have the players. But, in saying that, the nice thing we have in our favour is that we lost to them. I know I don’t have to talk much this week. The players will know it’s not just going to happen. I think in a lot of ways, we were on a high in that pool game back in April, about to tour, and we ended up losing that game. We’ll be a lot more focussed this week. It was probably a good thing for us that they beat us. Had we beaten them comfortably perhaps we would have gone into this game thinking it was a fait accompli. In a lot of ways we get to have another crack at them,” said White.
The Highlanders have included JP Koen on their bench for this match. He is a former Valke Under-19 and Under-20 front ranker who matriculated from Springs Technical High School. He moved to New Zealand a decade ago and plays his provincial rugby for Southland.
The teams are:
Sharks: SP Marais, S’bura Sithole, JP Pietersen, Paul Jordaan, Lwazi Mvovo, Frans Steyn, Cobus Reinach, Ryan Kankowski, Willem Alberts, Marcell Coetzee, Stephan Lewies, Anton Bresler, Jannie Du Plessis, Bismarck Du Plessis (captain), Thomas Du Toit. Replacements: Kyle Cooper, Dale Chadwick, Lourens Adriaanse, Ettienne Oosthuizen, Jean Deysel, Charl McLeod, Pat Lambie, Tonderai Chavhanga.
Highlanders: Ben Smith (co-captain), Richard Buckman, Malakai Fekitoa, Phil Burleigh, Patrick Osborne, Lima Sopoaga, Aaron Smith, Nasi Manu (co-captain), Shane Christie, Elliot Dixon, Joe Wheeler, Jarrad Hoeata, Chris King, Ged Robinson, Kane Hames. Replacements: Liam Coltman, Matias Diaz, JP Koen, Josh Bekhuis, Tom Franklin, Fumiaki Tanaka, Trent Renata, Gareth Evans.