We may be heading into round nine of Super Rugby action, but for the Sharks tonight’s clash against the Lions at Ellis Park will be just the second time this season that they have ventured away from the comfort of Kings Park.
In the solitary South African derby of the weekend, the Sharks not only have an opportunity to strengthen their powerful position at the summit of the local standings, they also have the chance to earn the first away victory of their season.
So far this year the Durban side have looked virtually unbeatable at home, comfortably winning all five of their games, with their narrowest margin of victory coming in their 37-23 win over the Lions on March 8. By anybody’s standards, that’s not too shabby.
However, it was in their first fixture on the road that the Sharks came unstuck, against the Bulls three weeks ago, albeit in a match when they lost backline generals Cobus Reinach and Pat Lambie to injury in the opening 10 minutes.
It was really the first time this season that the Sharks had faced significant scoreboard pressure, and with the Lions expected to produce a competitive performance at home, tonight’s encounter is sure to provide another big test of the Sharks’ campaign credentials.
After today’s match the Sharks play twice more at home before heading overseas, and captain Bismarck du Plessis said they would be targeting three wins from three in order to jet off to Australasia with winning momentum behind them.
“We said at the beginning of the season that we would break the campaign up into groups, and this is now a three-match stint before we go away,” said Du Plessis.
“We can’t afford to look too far ahead, it’s about this week and this week only. But in saying that, we don’t want to slip up in these last three games in South Africa.
“To be in the play-offs you really have to win your home games, and win one or two away, and we’re going up to Joburg to play our best, attacking rugby.”
Earlier in the week, director of rugby Jake White acknowledged that the Sharks would be looking to add fluency to their attack during this next phase of their campaign, and Du Plessis agreed that this was something they would be aiming for against the Lions.
“Our backline has been disrupted with a few injuries and enforced changes in recent weeks, but we can’t look back. We’ve had continuity now from the last game, and it will be important for us to attack from the right areas of the field against the Lions.”
Interestingly, Lions coach Johan Ackermann intimated this week that his side would look to adopt a more low-risk approach to cut out the errors that cost them so dearly against the Crusaders last weekend.
“We don’t want to lose our adventurous side, but we need to know when to play conservatively,” Ackermann said. “We need to get the right balance of kicking and passing.”
Although some of the Lions’ shortcomings were shown up by the Crusaders, Du Plessis said he expected this to have added to their motivation.
“You could see they struggled a little bit at the line-outs against the Crusaders, but the Lions are a team that play well together, and for each other. As I’ve said before, my two heroes in rugby are John Smit and Johan Ackermann, and you can just see how Johan has got the Lions playing well together.”
The Sharks will head into tonight’s match with the knowledge that after the Bulls’ defeat to the Highlanders yesterday, they have the opportunity to extend their lead in the South African conference to a commanding 10 points.
That, alone, is a massive incentive for victory at Ellis Park.
Lions: Andries Coetzee, Deon van Rensburg, Lionel Mapoe, Stefan Watermeyer, Courtnall Skosan, Marnitz Boshoff, Faf de Klerk, Warren Whiteley (capt), Willie Britz, Derick Minnie, Franco Mostert, Martin Muller, Julian Redelinghuys, Willie Wepener, Schalk van der Merwe.
Replacements: Robbie Coetzee, Corné Fourie, Ruan Dreyer, MB Lusaseni, Jaco Kriel, Ross Cronjé, Elton Jantjies, Alwyn Hollenbach.
Sharks: Lwazi Mvovo, Odwa Ndungane, S’bura Sithole, Frans Steyn, JP Pietersen, Fred Zeilinga, Charl McLeod, Ryan Kankowski, Jean Deysel, Marcell Coetzee, Stephan Lewies, Willem Alberts, Jannie du Plessis, Bismarck du Plessis (capt), Tendai Mtawarira. Replacements: Kyle Cooper, Dale Chadwick, Lourens Adriaanse, Ettienne Oosthuizen, Keegan Daniel, Stefan Ungerer, Paul Jordaan, SP Marais.
Highlanders (13) 27 Bulls (13) 20
Reds (10) 20 Brumbies (20) 23
Chiefs v Rebels
Hamilton, 9.35am. SS1/CSN
Force v Waratahs
Perth, 11.40am. SS1
Cheetahs v Crusaders
Bloemfontein, 5.05pm. SS1/M-Net
Lions v Sharks
Joburg, 7.10pm. SS1/M-Net
Byes: Blues, Hurricanes, Stormers,
P W D L F A B Pts
Brumbies 8 6 0 2 199 161 1 25
Sharks 6 5 0 1 181 101 3 23
Chiefs 6 3 2 1 167 144 4 20
Waratahs 6 4 0 2 162 105 4 20
Highlanders 7 4 0 3 184 184 3 19
Force 6 4 0 2 148 150 2 18
Bulls 8 3 1 4 185 190 4 18
Lions 7 4 0 3 164 176 0 16
Hurricanes 7 3 0 4 193 183 4 16
Blues 7 3 0 4 193 198 4 16
Reds 8 3 0 5 186 212 4 16
Crusaders 6 3 0 3 127 121 1 13
Rebels 6 2 0 4 131 160 3 11
Cheetahs 7 1 1 5 182 251 2 8
Stormers 7 1 0 6 105 171 2 6
South Africa conference
New Zealand conference
l Points allocation: four for a win, two for a draw, one for scoring four or more tries in a match or for losing by seven points or fewer.
l The top team from each country are ranked 1-3 and qualify for the final stages along with the three teams with the next-best overall records.
l Each team have two byes during competition. - Independent on Saturday