DURBAN – There was bad news out of Dunedin for the Sharks this morning when Highlanders coach Aaron Mauger announced a considerably weakened team to play the Rebels on Saturday in the South Island city.
The Rebels and the Sharks are scrapping for the eighth and final Super Rugby quarter-final spot and the decision of the New Zealanders to field a B team has levelled the scales after they had been tipped more in favour of the Sharks.
If the eighth-placed Rebels beat the Highlanders they will claim the play-off spot regardless of what happens in Durban where the Sharks are hosting the Jaguares in the final game of the weekend and indeed of the entire pool stages. But if they lose, the ninth-placed Sharks have the uncomplicated scenario of having to beat the Argentineans at Kings Park, a victory that would see them leapfrog the Rebels.
But now that the Highlanders are under-strength, the challenge facing the Australians is not quite as stiff. Australian teams have found it virtually impossible to beat New Zealand opposition in recent years but the Rebels will be perked by the fact that it was in Dunedin six weeks ago that the Waratahs at last ended a drought dating back to March 2016 when they beat the Highlanders.
The Waratahs’ 41-12 win ended a 40-match losing streak by Aussie sides against New Zealand teams.
The Highlanders are currently sixth on the combined log and their position would only change if they had a massive win over the Rebels as well as having the Hurricanes beat the Chiefs by a huge margin, which would elevate them to fifth.
Coach Mauger clearly does not believe this is possible and so has opted to rest key players before a probable trip to Johannesburg to play the Lions.
The widespread changes to the Highlanders’ match 23 include rests for frontline All Blacks in Ben Smith, Aaron Smith and Luke Whitelock while other key players given a break are flank Elliot Dixon, hooker Ash Dixon and centre Rob Thompson.
Meanwhile Sharks coach Robert du Preez has largely stuck with the side that lost last week to the Stormers.
As expected, Beast Mtawarira returns at loosehead prop in place of Juan Schoeman after having his workload reduced last week by playing him off the bench, while Kobus van Wyk replaces the injured Sbu Nkosi on the wing.
The latter’s ankle injury is more serious than first thought and the recovery prognosis of eight to 12 weeks means Nkosi will miss much of the Rugby Championship. Nkosi suffered the injury playing against the Lions two weeks ago.
Better news is that another Springbok, Daniel du Preez, has been cleared to play after pinching a nerve in his neck at Newlands and takes his place at No 8.
The Sharks team is:
15. Curwin Bosch 14. Kobus van Wyk 13. Lukhanyo Am 12. Andre Esterhuizen 11. Lwazi Mvovo 10. Robert du Preez 9. Louis Schreuder 8. Daniel du Preez 7. Jacques Vermeulen 6. Philip van der Walt 5. Ruan Botha (capt) 4. Tyler Paul 3. Thomas du Toit 2. Akker van der Merwe 1. Tendai Mtawarira
Substitutes: 16. Chiliboy Ralepelle 17. Juan Schoeman 18. John-Hubert Meyer 19. Hyron Andrews 20. Wian Vosloo 21. Cameron Wright 22. Marius Louw 23. Makazole Mapimpi