For coach Robert du Preez, this home match is of desperate importance after the loss to the Bulls last week and ahead of a very tricky match against the rampant Jaguares, who are fresh from a record-breaking tour to Australia and New Zealand, which saw them go unbeaten in four matches.
When asked on Thursday if his team would be chasing the bonus point, he answered: “Not at all. Winning comes first and we don’t care how we get the points. We won’t change the way we play simply because bonus points are now so crucial in the log-jammed SA Conference. It is business as usual. We will follow our processes to get the win and if a bonus point is part of a victory, then that is a bonus. Chasing that extra point from the outset is not a consideration.”
Du Preez would dearly love to win today and next Saturday in Argentina before the competition takes a month long hiatus for the June internationals. These last two rounds before the break are vital for every team in the SA Conference and by next Saturday night the five teams will know exactly where they stand and what is required of them before the competition resumes in July, with three rounds remaining before the quarter-finals and all five teams in with a shot of finishing top. The precious reward is a home quarter-final as opposed to a near hopeless trek Down Under.
The Sharks are pretty much at full strength having had their best fortune in terms of injury for many a year. They are at home, they returned from Loftus far from despondent after a courageous second-half fight-back that almost secured the spoils, and they are playing a Chiefs team that is missing a host of injured players that never made their tour plus four All Blacks went home after the Stormers game last weekend for a national camp.
“There is a great spirit and energy in the team,” said Du Preez. “The vibe is very positive and the guys are hungry to get back on the horse after the loss to the Bulls. We also know that we can’t afford any more slip-ups.”
And certainly not at home against a Chiefs team that has a staggering 20 players unavailable for selection from their initial squad of 38. But to put the depth of New Zealand rugby into perspective, the Chiefs team for this afternoon shows only four changes to the side that beat the Stormers 15-6. The balance of that 20 have been injured for some time.
Having said that, of the four All Blacks that went home, two are vital pillars in the Chiefs team. Lock Brodie Retallick is the colossus around which the Chiefs’ pack is built and flyhalf Damian McKenzie is the spark that sets their backline on fire.
The loss of that pair alone is crucial.
McKenzie has been replaced by his brother Marty, who last started a match at flyhalf for the Chiefs three years ago.
Opposite him is one of the form flyhalves in South Africa, Robert du Preez, who has kicked the most goals in the competition (54) and he has the highest accuracy (90 percent).
How much quality ball Du Preez receives from his pack will be a great point of interest given that the Chiefs pack that out-scrummed the Stormers is only missing Retallick. The Chiefs’ scrum is the best in the competition (95 percent success rate). Importantly, the front row is intact in the form of props Karl Tu’inukuafe and Angus Ta’avao, and hooker Nathan Harris.
The depth of Kiwi rugby is illustrated by the fact that the aforementioned props did not have contracts at the beginning of the season. In summary, the Sharks should win but don’t expect the runaway margin that many have predicted.