The two sides are equally star-studded with Springboks past and present, including a healthy dollop of players who were part of the Boks’ thrilling series win over Eddie Jones’ tourists, so with personal battles interlocked with the crucial need for log points, an epic showdown is guaranteed.
The Sharks have to win today, next week in Cape Town and then at home against the Jaguares in the last pool game to claim a quarter-final spot while the Lions can guarantee themselves a home quarter-final by beating the Sharks.
The Lions are six points ahead of the Jaguares who, in turn, are six points ahead of the Sharks. Two of these three will go through and there is a possibility of the third sneaking in via the two wildcards allocated to the quarters for the top finishers outside the top two finishers in each of the three Conferences.
“We are going into a defining part of our season,” coach Robert du Preez admitted. “This is it, every game is of great importance ... we have to win every game, but right now we are not looking any further than the Lions. It is the big one. During the season there has been a lack of consistency from us in that we have played some great games and then some mediocre ones,” Du Preez added. “But that is all in the past, it is finals rugby for us now.”
The gauntlet has been well and truly laid down for the visiting Lions and they will know that their incredible 21-match unbeaten run against SA opposition (dating back to 2015), is under severe threat, and it is of little consequence that they have won seven in a row against the Sharks.
The Durbanites need no reminding of their sequence of losses to the Lions and Bok hero Sbu Nkosi on Wednesday remarked that “We owe them one ... we have a point to prove after losing some close ones.”
There have been a host of those for the Sharks but fresher in their memories will be the first-round loss to the Lions and last year’s quarter-final defeat to the same team, both at Ellis Park and both were matches that the Sharks seemed to have wrapped up.
In favour of the Sharks correcting their imbalance with the Lions is the fact that they have lost just one of their last six games in Durban (W4, D1), including wins in each of their last three.
The Sharks may be opting for “finals” rugby, according to their coach, but it is interesting to note that they have made the most offloads per game in this year’s competition (13), while the Lions (six) have made the fewest, so we might yet see the Sharks spreading the ball to the likes of Nkosi, Makazole Mapimpi and Curwin Bosch.
“We will have 14 Springboks in our match day squad,” Du Preez said of the quality in his side. “That tells the story that the guys have worked incredibly hard. We have played some great rugby, and it is coming down to this weekend and this weekend only.
“Playing at home means we have no excuses. Playing in front of our fans at home, with a familiar environment the whole week, helps mentally. Now we have to put on a really good performance.”