There was a throwaway remark by John Plumtree at the end of a press briefing on Monday that sums up what Saturday’s Super Rugby visit by the Sharks to the Lions is all about: “The Rebels beat the Crusaders – anything can happen to any team on the day if you are not correctly focused,” Plumtree warned.
He makes a good point. How could the seven-times champions – Richie McCaw, Dan Carter et al – get whacked 28-19 last month in Melbourne by a team that in three years has managed just five wins?
It was quite probably the biggest upset in Super Rugby history.
The Crusaders, the epitome of professionalism, for once dropped their guard and were caught out on the day by an outsider team that played way above themselves.
It is precisely this scenario that Plumtree has been banging on his drum to his charges all week – a correctly-focused Sharks team will beat an inferior Lions side, but if the collective eye is off the ball, they will be ambushed in the Lions’s den.
Man for man, the Lions should have no answer to a Sharks 22 that were red hot in May in winning all four fixtures they contested after losing to the Chiefs in their first match home from tour.
And they are hell bent on starting June by completing their goal of five consecutive wins before the Springbok break.
It is the Sharks’ only match in June given the break for the three-Test series against England and will be followed by their second bye, so they really can throw the kitchen sink at this fixture.
There is no need to hold back with a month’s break ahead.
Okay, there are a few Boks in the Sharks’ midst – Bismarck and Jannie du Plessis, Patrick Lambie and JP Pietersen will start, while Willem Alberts and Marcell Coetzee will be involved, and perhaps Keegan Daniel.
But it is the form of an international player that has nothing to do with the Springboks that could have a vital influence on the game.
Frederic Michalak played in the shadows of the Sharks campaign until a few weeks ago when he was elevated to the starting line-up when Lambie fell sick before the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein, and Michalak has been on song since.
His Super Rugby form was recognised in his homeland when he was picked for the French team about to tour Argentina.
Michalak last played for France in 2010 and was overlooked for last year’s World Cup. His opponent tomorrow, young Elton Jantjies, has had a disappointing season in comparison.
He was injured for much of the first half of the competition and in a losing team has battled to regain the heights he reached in last year’s triumphant Currie Cup campaign.
If he can get his form together on his home turf and in a fixture his teammates relish, he could propel the Lions into the party, and if they can get up a head of steam, they could start reliving the Currie Cup final – and then the Sharks will be in shallow water.
There is no doubt the Lions will regard winning derby games against the Sharks, Stormers and Bulls as redemption for their pitiful season.
The Sharks were forced into a change at 13 when Paul Jordaan was not released by the SA Under-20 team. His place is taken by JP Pietersen, who in turn has been replaced on right wing by Odwa Ndungane. Louis Ludik is in for Ndungane on the bench.
Lions coach John Mitchell has recalled Butch James to his side, while young Anthonie Volminck gets a run on the left wing.
He replaces Michael Killian who, Mitchell says, is out of form, while James fills in for the injured Jaco Taute.
In the pack, Hendrik Roodt replaces Botha, while centre Waylon Murray returns to the side after a long absence through injury.
Referee: Garratt Williamson (NZ) – The Mercury