Melbourne – When it comes to sports references, the term ‘season-defining match’ has become something of a cliché, but it wouldn’t be unreasonable to attach such a label to the Sharks’ clash against the Rebels in Melbourne today.
After an impressive start to the season that saw the Durbanites clinch seven wins out of their first eight games, the Highlanders delivered a sobering reality check when they outplayed the Sharks to the tune of 34-18 last Friday.
However, in the words of coach Jake White, the Sharks have taken that result “on the chin”, and there is a very clear understanding of what sort of response is expected of the players today.
White has reiterated the philosophy that the championship credentials and character of a team are displayed by the manner in which they bounce back from a humbling defeat.
A resurgent victory over the Rebels would not only enable the Sharks to consolidate their lead at the top of the overall log, but it would provide the team with a timely boost at the start of a crucial tour.
After this match, the Sharks face the considerable challenge of taking on the second-placed Brumbies followed by an encounter against the Crusaders in Christchurch, where they have never won before.
Importantly, though, the Sharks have welcomed back a handful of players from injury for today’s encounter – including talismanic skipper Bismarck du Plessis – while a proactive move has seen Frans Steyn shifted to flyhalf to add additional directness to the team’s attack.
It’s undoubtedly going to require a far more cohesive performance from the Sharks if they are to have success against the Rebels – a team that invariably punch above their metaphoric weight, and love nothing more than the opportunity to knock over one of the competition’s heavyweights.
Speaking of which, Rebels coach Tony McGahan said the selection of experienced Wallaby Luke Burgess to start at scrumhalf was based on the need to counter the Sharks’ typical strengths.
“We’re looking for a change in dynamics as we play the Sharks who have such a big physical pack,” McGahan said.
“Luke has a strong kicking game from nine, and we’ll need the physicality around the ruck, and in attack and defence that Luke can certainly bring.”
Burgess’ introduction at the expense of Nic Stirzaker is one of only two changes to the Rebels side, the other being the selection of prop Cruze Ah-Nau to make his run-on debut as a replacement for the injured Toby Smith.
“We are ready for the challenges posed by the Sharks,” the Rebels coach emphasised.
“It’s great to be through the first half of the season now. The guys have been really keen and enthusiastic at training over the last few days to start the second half of the season, and most importantly this block of five games now, which kicks off with playing the number one side in Super Rugby at this point.
“We are really looking forward to the challenge, and being back at home.”
Rebels: Jason Woodward, Male Sau, Tamati Ellison, Mitch Inman, Tom English, Bryce Hegarty, Luke Burgess, Scott Higginbotham (capt), Scott Fuglistaller, Colby Fainga’a, Luke Jones, Cadeyrn Neville, Laurie Weeks, Shota Horie, Cruze Ah-Nau. Replacements: Pat Leafa, Max Lahiff, Paul Alo-Emilie, Hugh Pyle, Sean McMahon, Nic Stirzaker, Tom Kingston, Angus Roberts - The Star