Johannesburg - All eyes will be on the Sharks, and especially Pat Lambie, as Super Rugby returns for the South African franchises this coming weekend.
In the absence of Lambie - who missed nine Super Rugby games because of a bicep injury - the likes of Handré Pollard and Marnitz Boshoff jumped the Sharks No10 in the national pecking order, but the baby-faced flyhalf is back this weekend and no doubt eager to show he’s not done yet with Test rugby.
Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer, who at one stage seriously considered employing Lambie as his first choice flyhalf, has used Morné Steyn, Johan Goosen, Pollard and Boshoff at No10 during the just completed June Tests. Lambie had to sit and watch on the sidelines as Pollard, especially, grabbed his chance.
But with the Sharks back in action, Lambie is almost sure to be back as his team’s director when they take on the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein. It is a must-win game for Jake White and his charges after they lost their position at the top of the standings at the weekend following the Waratahs’ victory over the Brumbies.
The men from Sydney now lead the way on 48 points, with the Sharks second, 45, and they’re followed by the Crusaders (42), Highlanders (42), Hurricanes (41) and Brumbies (40).
With just two rounds remaining before the knockout games, there’s still plenty at stake for the leading nine teams, which includes the defending champions, the Chiefs (36 points), but for the Bulls (33), in 10th, only a miracle will see them into the play-offs.
South Africa’s hope at glory this year rests solely with the Sharks, but besides facing a tough trip to the Free State capital this weekend, they also still have to go to Newlands for a meeting with the Stormers.
It’s not an easy run-in, but then White will back a Bok-laden team, which will also include Frans Steyn, to do the business, no matter the opposition.
The other encouraging news for the Sharks is that the Waratahs also face a daunting two weeks, with matches against the Highlanders and Reds to come. The third-placed Crusaders are up against the Blues and Highlanders - also tough asks at the back end of the competition.
The four other South African teams have little to play for, but will be eager to finish on a high and preserve their players ahead of the Currie Cup competition. The Bulls have meetings with the Stormers and Rebels and may need to find a new captain as Flip van der Merwe is out injured, while Victor Matfield is surely due for a rest.
The Lions, who’re set to welcome back Franco van der Merwe, still have to face the Rebels and Cheetahs, while the men from Bloemfontein entertain the Sharks this weekend and then travel to Joburg to wrap up their season.
Friday: Chiefs v Hurricanes; Lions v Rebels
Saturday: Crusaders v Blues; Force v Reds; Stormers v Bulls; Cheetahs v Sharks
Sunday: Waratahs v Highlanders
July 11: Blues v Chiefs; Brumbies v Force; Bulls v Rebels
July 12: Crusaders v Highlanders; Reds v Waratahs; Lions v Cheetahs; Stormers v Sharks