Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Fortunately for the visiting Highlanders, key Super Rugby matches aren’t automatically won on comparative numbers of international caps or general “big-match temperament” challenges beneath the belt.
If that were the case, the Sharks would probably run up a cricket score in their effective quarter-final against these foes at Kings Park on Saturday (17:05).
Everyone knows that scenario is very unlikely, not least because it would be a startling turnaround from the ordinary-season meeting at the same venue, when the men from Otago caught their hosts cold and thumped them 34-18.
Yet the Sharks are arguably the rightful, clear favourites on this occasion, with knockout pressure making for an entirely different kettle of fish.
In that respect, their infinitely greater collection of “been there, done that” customers – not only at Super Rugby playoffs level but in the top-tier cauldron of international rugby too – ought to come into play to hometown advantage.
For starters, in this competition many of the current Sharks crop are well versed in the demands of the finals series, whereas the Highlanders are notable rookies to the advanced phase.
Just since the advent of the enlarged, conference system in 2011, the Durban-based team have sampled four knockout matches to these particular New Zealanders’ none.
In that maiden year of the new format, the Sharks sneaked into the six-team playoffs in the last available slot, although their formidable first-round away assignment against the Crusaders ended in a 36-8 loss and rapid exit.
But 2012 was their big year for accumulation of “KO” knowledge as they went all the way to a Hamilton final after defying the effects of long-haul travel for a commendable period.
Their globe-trotting finals series adventure saw them first beat the Reds 30-17 in Brisbane, then the Stormers 26-19 in a Newlands derby semi, before the fairytale ended 37-6 away to the Chiefs in the showpiece.
The bulk of their stalwarts from that ocean criss-crossing saga are still around today, and will be so much the wiser for their experiences both in victories and defeats: the modern Highlanders have no such educative occasions to draw on.
Their last taste of knockout activity was with a previous generation of Otago players in 2003, when they surrendered a Christchurch Super 12 semi-final 34-23 to the Crusaders.
After that, though, and still in the period before conferences came into being, the Sharks had another two semis and a final in the competition – the last-named instance being the heartbreaking 20-19 defeat in the Durban showpiece to the Bulls after the siren in 2007.
If Test experience is also a handy ally at this high-stakes stage of Super Rugby – you have to suggest it almost certainly is? – then Jake White’s charges again hold seriously clear-cut sway.
This will be particularly evident in the all-important pack department, as it is the one area where the Highlanders suffer glaringly through lack of it.
Put bluntly, if they stick to the same front eight who laboured in their last match (a 34-8 drubbing from the ‘Saders in Christchurch) their collective tally of All Black caps will amount to a fat zero.
Minor comfort will come from the fact that tighthead prop Chris King, 33, is a gnarly enough veteran of Super Rugby, having been involved in it for almost a dozen years.
But the Sharks forwards will be a vastly more world-wise unit, however White decides to structure his resources for Saturday.
Just a glance at the starting forwards against the Stormers at Newlands last weekend – who played a big role with their physical commitment in chiselling out a 24-point triumph – reveals a beefy total of 183 Bok appearances.
This was the more precise breakdown, from jerseys one to eight: Thomas du Toit (0), Bismarck du Plessis (60), Jannie du Plessis (54), Anton Bresler (0), Stephan Lewies (1), Marcell Coetzee (16), Willem Alberts (32) and Ryan Kankowski (20).
Expect the Sharks pack to look almost identical against the Highlanders – but perhaps only with further Test steel entering the equation if the 55-cap loosehead prop Tendai Mtawarira is passed suitably fit to start after a few weeks’ absence, swelling the combined figure to 238.
At least the visitors know from a statistical perspective that they will not be the favourites, and a “David taking on Goliath” mentality will be their own likeliest form of solace and match-day zeal ...
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