Sharks v Crusaders - expect epic battleComment on this story
The Super Rugby showdown between the Crusaders and the Sharks (9.35am) has all the ingredients to make it one of the classic semi-finals.
It is going to be brutal, uncompromising and a teeth-clenching arm wrestle from the first whistle to the last.
At least that is how the Sharks are going to be play it, and the talk from the Crusaders camp has been that they will go toe-to-toe with the respected Sharks pack, and if they get parity at least up front, their phenomenal backs could prove the difference between the sides.
The Sharks have made no secret of their intention to smash the Crusaders up front and then strangle the life out of the seven-time champions by denying the ball to Dan Carter, Israel Dagg et al.
Coach Jake White has assembled an enormous pack, picking bulldozer Willem Alberts at lock and bringing in bruising Jean Deysel to start on the flank.
The front row has been in savage form and youngster Thomas du Toit (loosehead prop) has combined so well with the Du Plessis brothers that there has been almost no talk of the loss to injury of Beast Mtawarira.
The Sharks pack has also been boosted by the return from injury of red-hot lock Stephan Lewies, who has not only taken more line-out ball than any other forward in the competition, but also heads the list of “most steals”.
Combining with Deysel in the loose trio is arguably the form flank in South African rugby, Marcell Coetzee, while Ryan Kankowski at No 8 is showing signs of rediscovering the attributes that made him a Springbok.
It is an exceptional pack of forwards, and how they are contained by the Crusaders is the key to the match.
Behind the Sharks pack, Patrick Lambie has been restored to the No 10 jersey, with Frans Steyn shifting back to inside centre. Paul Jordaan moves to 13 and with JP Pietersen back on the wing, S’buru Sithole is unlucky to lose out. Lwazi Mvovo is the other wing.
It is a Sharks team that will believe that lightning can strike twice and that they can repeat their victory in Christchurch two months ago.
By the same token, the Crusaders will be “once bitten, twice shy” and will play at a different level this time.
It’s a good thing the Sharks believe they can win, because almost nobody else does.
In the last 11 seasons of Super Rugby, only three teams have managed to win a semi-final away from home and the Sharks are one of them.
They beat the Stormers in Cape Town in 2012. The other two are the Crusaders (against the Stormers in Cape Town in 2011) and the Brumbies (against the Bulls in Pretoria last year).
Going back further, the Natal Sharks won a famous victory over the Reds in Brisbane in 1996, putting 44 points past a Queensland packed with Wallabies and led by the great John Eales.
South African teams going east for play-offs in Australia or New Zealand have struggled in the past, winning only two out of 16 of these matches, although funnily enough both wins were by the Sharks.
Aussie and Kiwi teams have the same problem when they visit South Africa for play-off games, having won only three from 10.
Combining those statistics, the winning percentage for teams crossing the Indian Ocean for knockout matches is just five out of 26.
A more telling statistic is that no South African team has won a play-off match in New Zealand in nine attempts.
White, the eternal optimist, believes these records are actually a positive thing because it means it is time they were broken, and his Sharks team is the one to do it.
“One day a travelling team is going to win a semi-final in New Zealand – it has to eventually happen and we honestly believe we have the firepower to do it,” White said.
And firepower is what it is going to be all about for the Sharks – the exchanges up front are going to be so bone-crunching that many a viewer could be reaching for something stronger than a cup of coffee.
Crusaders: Israel Dagg; Kieron Fonotia, Ryan Crotty, Dan Carter, Nemani Nadolo; Colin Slade, Andy Ellis; Kieran Read (captain), Matt Todd, Richie McCaw; Samuel Whitelock, Dominic Bird; Owen Franks, Corey Flynn, Wyatt Crockett. Replacements: Ben Funnell, Joe Moody, Nepo Laulala, Jimmy Tupou, Jordan Taufua, Willi Heinz, Tom Taylor, Johnny McNicholl.
Sharks: SP Marais; JP Pietersen, Paul Jordaan, Frans Steyn, Lwazi Mvovo; Patrick Lambie, Cobus Reinach; Ryan Kankowski, Jean Deysel, Marcell Coetzee; Stephan Lewies, Willem Alberts; Jannie du Plessis, Bismarck du Plessis (captain), Thomas du Toit.
Replacements: Kyle Cooper, Dale Chadwick, Lourens Adriaanse, Ettienne Oosthuizen, Tera Mtembu, Charl McLeod, S’bura Sithole, Tonderai Chavhanga.
Super Rugby semi-finals
Crusaders v Sharks
9.35am, Christchurch (SS1/SS HD/ M-Net)
Waratahs v Brumbies
11.40am, Sydney (SS1/SS HD/M-Net) - The Mercury