Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – A midfield match-up, the scrumhalves, the battle
between the pilferers on the deck and an arm-wrestle at scrum-time come under
focus as Sport24 pinpoints a quartet of areas that could tilt the balance
between the Sharks and Highlanders.
The teams meet in a Super Rugby finals series first-round
knockout match at Kings Park on Saturday (17:05) and these are the individual
contests Rob Houwing highlights for special attention ...
No 13: JP Pietersen
(Sharks) v Malakai Fekitoa (Highlanders)
Considering the sickening impact when co-Springboks
Pietersen and Duane Vermeulen smacked heads in last weekend’s Newlands derby,
it seems amazing that the former has passed the necessary concussion protocols.
Clearly it was one of those incidents that looked worse than it actually was?
Anyway, the lanky Sharks utility back -- finding his feet more and more in a
reprisal this year of his midfield role -- will need to be in finest fettle
both in body and spirit as he faces the crucial task of ensuring visiting powerhouse
Fekitoa, now an All Black, doesn’t repeat the attacking mayhem of his last
visit to Durban when the Otago side earned a shock but deserved 34-18 win.
Certainly the home-town favourite has the physical prowess of his own to keep a
lid on his direct opponent, although they were not head-to-head in the last
game: on that occasion, Paul Jordaan was at 13 with Pietersen on the wing. If
the Sharks have done their homework, they will know that you don’t give Fekitoa
even a two-step start with ball in hand ...
No 9: Cobus Reinach
(Sharks) v Aaron Smith (Highlanders)
It is hardly a secret that Bok coach Heyneke Meyer still
largely favours overseas-based scrumhalves (Fourie du Preez and Ruan Pienaar)
and if a local one gets a look-in, it’s most likely to be the Bulls’ Francois
Hougaard. Here is a wonderful, genuinely big-game opportunity for the Sharks’
livewire, elusive Reinach to force his way much closer to the front of the SA
pecking order. He is, happily, fit again after a niggle ruled him out at the eleventh
hour against the Stormers last Saturday and it is no bad thing for his Test
ambitions that he comes face to face here with lethal All Blacks No 9 Aaron
Smith. Reinach is another player who was crocked when the Highlanders last came
to KZN earlier in the campaign (seasoned Charl McLeod began in the berth), so
Jake White will be hoping he makes a vital difference in the revenge quest. If
the Highlanders opt for an adventurous approach to try to combat the Sharks’ anticipated
forward dominance, Smith won’t be far from the fulcrum of it.
Nos 6/7: Marcell
Coetzee (Sharks) v Shane Christie (Highlanders)
Remembering that the NZ way is to field their fetcher in the
No 7 jersey – we still make him the No 6 – the scrap between Coetzee and
Christie should be worth the attendance fee alone. The former is bang in form
after really getting under the skin of Schalk Burger and others in the Stormers
ranks at Newlands, suffocating them with his bulldog commitment and slow-down
skills at the breakdown, and in the tackle as well. But make no mistake,
Christie is a formidable open-sider in his own right, and seldom been far from
the top of the various relevant stats lists in Super Rugby this year. He might
well be an international but for a Richie McCaw-led battery of ace fetchers in
the New Zealand game.
Nos 1/3: Thomas du
Toit (Sharks) v Chris King (Highlanders)
Hefty (122kg) Junior Springbok teenager and former Paarl
Boys’ High front-row muscle man Du Toit has come into the Sharks’ starting XV
of late through the absence of Tendai Mtawarira who was initially thought to be
available again for this weekend. Unless the Sharks (who have done this before,
of course!) are selling some selection red herrings, the incumbent now stays on
for his biggest first-class challenge yet – a KO game in Super Rugby. He showed
promising mettle against the Stormers, but it must also be kept in mind that
here the most wet-behind-the-ears Sharks forward gets to grips at scrum-time
with the Highlanders’ most experienced: 33-year-old tighthead Chris King.
That’s a massive 14-year difference in age and knowledge, and Du Toit must know
he needs to “man up”. In his favour is having the gnarly Du Plessis brothers
alongside him in the Sharks front row.
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