The Highlanders will be keen to return to the victory trail when they host the Sharks in Round 12’s opener in Dunedin on Friday.
The home side are currently in sixth position in the standings but their campaign suffered a setback last weekend when they suffered a 31-18 defeat against the Brumbies in Canberra.
They were battling from the outset in that game and were playing catch-up after they were shocked by a first-half blitz from their hosts.
If the Highlanders are keen to return to winning ways then the Sharks will be desperate judging by their current form. Their season has gone off the rails somewhat in recent weeks and ill discipline has played a huge part.
They’ve lost key senior players in Bismarck du Plessis, Frans Steyn and Jean Deysel due to bans and their absence has been a big contributing factor in the Durban-based side’s slide down to 10th position on the overall table.
The Sharks have made the second least carries (806) and in the entire competition and are also battling in metres gained (3375) this year with only the Reds and Cheetahs faring worse than them in this department.
The Highlanders are the fourth mosts successful team at line-outs and scrums with an 88.4% and 91% success rate at the respective set-pieces.
Highlanders utility back Richard Buckman is not underestimating the Sharks and expects a big onslaught from the visitors. ”They’re a pretty physical team, from what we’ve seen,” he told the Otago Daily News.
“They will look at our last game and attack with the rolling maul. But if we stick to our game plan and keep them away from lineouts and penalties and get it out the back, then we should be right.”
Sharks boss Gary Gold Sharks is under no illusions about the task ahead of them and knows the Highlanders are keen to bounce back in front of their home crowd.
“They’re a very good team, they have a good balance, a good scrum and lineout with lethal backs – the likes of Aaron and Ben Smith, Patrick Osborne, Malakai Fekitoa and so on,” he said.
“It will be difficult, although weather won’t be a factor because of the roof which was always a neutralising factor for them in the past (before they played without a cover) because of the rain and difficult conditions. But it does definitely work in their favour now.
“But we saw with the Brumbies (against the Highlanders) that if you stick to your basics well, you can be successful against the Highlanders.
“However, they will be smarting after the weekend’s loss to the Brumbies, no doubt it will be a very tough challenge.”
The last time these teams met: These teams delivered a thrilling encounter in last year’s play-off clash in Durban. The Sharks secured a narrow 31-27 victory but it wasn’t plain sailing as the Highlanders led 17-13 at the break. Marcell Coetzee, Bismarck du Plessis and Tonderai Chavhanga scored tries for the hosts and Frans Steyn contributed 16 points via four penalties and a conversion. For the visitors Malakai Fekitoa, Kane Hames and Phil Burleigh crossed the whitewash and their other points came from Lima Sopoaga who kicked three conversions and two penalties.
Players to watch: Springbok hooker Bismarck du Plessis will be raring to go after serving a four-week suspension for kicking Chiefs number eight Michael Leitch in the head. When on song, there is no finer number two in the game than Du Plessis and Sharks fans will be hoping he hits the ground running on his return.
The Highlanders welcome back their All Blacks Ben Smith, Malakai Fekitoa and Aaron Smith after they sat out last weekend’s clash with the Brumbies. Ben Smith and Fekitoa are two of the finest attacking players in the tournament while Aaron Smith’s decision-making and slick service to his backs is highly-rated. This trio’s presence is sure to keep the Sharks defenders on their toes.
Team news: For the hosts, Josh Hohneck returns to tighthead prop, lock Mark Reddish has recovered from injury to replace Joe Wheeler, who suffered a knee injury last week, and both Gareth Evans and Dan Pryor come into the back row as the starting flankes. For the Highlanders, the Smiths and Fekitoa return to the field after their one round rest and the versatile Richard Buckman moves to inside centre to cover for Shaun Treeby.
Marco Wentzel will continue as Sharks captain despite the return of Bismarck du Plessis, who comes straight into the starting line-up in place of Franco Marais, who is amongst the replacements. Lourens Adriaanse also starts in the front row, while Stephan Lewies is preferred to Mouritz Botha at lock. There is also one change in the backs, with JP Pietersen starting at outside centre ahead of Waylon Murray who drops to the bench.
Form: Last weekend’s loss to the Brumbies ended the Highlanders’ three-match winning streak in which they beat the Stormers, Crusaders and Blues. The Sharks are fresh off a bye but prior to that they lost three games on the trot against the Crusaders, Lions and Bulls with their last victory registered in Round Seven – a 15-9 triumph over the Western Force in Durban.
Prediction: The home side have their All Blacks back and that makes a big difference. Highlanders to win by nine points!
2014: Sharks won 31-27 in Durban (play-off)
2014: Highlanders won 34-18 in Durban
2013: Highlanders won 25-22 in Durnedin
2012: Sharks won 26-18 in Durban
2010: Sharks won 30-16 in Dunedin
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Richard Buckman, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu, 7 Dan Pryor, 6 Gareth Evans, 5 Mark Reddish, 4 Tom Franklin, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Kane Hames.
Replacements: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Brendon Edmonds, 18 Pingi Tala’apitaga, 19 Joe Latta, 20 Elliot Dixon, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Marty Banks, 23 Jason Emery.
Sharks: 15 Odwa Ndungane, 14 S’bura Sithole, 13 JP Pietersen, 12 Andre Esterhuizen, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Fred Zeilinga, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Willem Alberts, 7 Renaldo Bothma, 6 Marcell Coetzee, 5 Marco Wentzel (c), 4 Stephan Lewies, 3 Lourens Adriaanse, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Replacements: 16 Franco Marais, 17 Dale Chadwick, 18 Matt Stevens, 19 Mouritz Botha, 20 Etienne Oosthuizen, 21 Conrad Hoffmann, 22 Lionel Cronje, 23 Waylon Murray.
Date: Saturday, May 2
Venue: Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
Kick-off:19:35 local (07:35 GMT, 17:35 AEST, 09:35 SAST)
Referee: Angus Gardner (Australia)
Assistant referees: Kane McBride, Mike Lash (both New Zealand)
TMO: Vinny Munro (New Zealand)