Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Expect the Sharks on Saturday to seek to buck the trend of tries not necessarily being an essential route to success in high-stakes knockout rugby.
One of the more up-tempo sides in Super Rugby, and with recent form only underlining that, they are unlikely to want the semi-final against the Stormers at sold-out Newlands to be too conservative and relatively low-scoring -- because that plays into the hands of a pragmatic home team who are masters of the grind-it-out triumph.
The Sharks so nearly prevailed the last time these teams met at the same venue, early in the ordinary-season programme, when an uncompromising, often uninspiring and try-less contest was snatched 15-12 by the Stormers through Peter Grant’s late success with a tricky penalty goal.
Yet the fact remained that the visitors still came off second best on the scoreboard, despite arguably shading the contest and with a more lightweight tight five then, which had featured starts for both second-choice props Dale Chadwick and Wiehahn Herbst.
It was a classic example of the Stormers’ uncanny ability – later demonstrated in many more matches -- to soak up pressure through their hugely adhesive defensive system and just manage to post enough points themselves (with Grant’s accuracy off the tee a vital tool) to win.
As was reminded at their midweek media briefing, the Stormers have basically been playing “finals rugby” all season, like it or not, and it has got them this far ... as overall log-toppers and with rights to a possible home showpiece next weekend.
With bigger guns like Willem Alberts, Jannie du Plessis and Beast Mtawarira back in their plans this time at Newlands, the Sharks will aim to dominate the scrums and also command more consistently good field position by way of bulldozing leg-drive at close quarters in open play.
But a big hallmark of their zest in recent weeks has been the combination of this “grunt” with purposeful and incisive backline venom: unlike the Stormers, the Sharks have been winning games aided in a great way by volume of tries in their favour.
It is unlikely that they will consciously abandon that template now -- even given that this is a stage of the competition where winning is all that matters, whether it is by 9-3 or 30-26.
There is every likelihood that the visitors will target a fast and furious start, given the very real threat that as the second half progresses, residual long-haul travel fatigue may come into play for them and coach John Plumtree will be particularly alert to the need to provide infusion off his bench.
If the Sharks, in a suitably rip-roaring first 20-30 minutes or so from them, are able to cross the chalk once or twice without reply, they would simultaneously force the Stormers into near-virgin territory in 2012: chasing the game and thus being forced to loosen a bit of their hitherto admirable “structure” in the process.
I would argue that a 6-6 sort of scenario, or thereabouts, at half-time would potentially be ominous for the Sharks, which is why a couple of five- or seven-pointers relatively early in the contest may be their most promising route to inflicting a first home loss on the Stormers this year.
It is not as though such a philosophy will not bring with it certain perils ... the Sharks producing a charm offensive straight out of the blocks may also play into home hands; men like Bryan Habana and Jean de Villiers are renowned for their devilish eye for the intercept or at the very least an ability to transfer play by 40 or 50 metres from a suitably stealthy turnover.
That said, the Sharks are likely to enter this clash -- while acknowledging the huge stakes and pressures -- with an unavoidably upbeat feeling about their offensive game, even in the unlikely event that they receive instructions leaning toward caution from their coaching staff.
The Sharks hit the 50-try mark for the campaign in their successful qualifier against the Reds in Brisbane last weekend, scoring three tries to two in the process.
Just a week earlier, the Stormers (28 tries from their ordinary-season campaign, the lowest of any team) were, by contrast, outscored 3-2 in tries by the notably weaker Melbourne Rebels, and not even in Australia.
Yes, I believe Keegan Daniel and company will genuinely “have a go” – especially with fair weather quite firmly in the offing -- at what is usually the stingiest defence in Super Rugby.Rob Houwing’s forecast:
This match is dreadfully hazardous to call! For all-round quality to their recent play and boasting of such indisputably world-class names as Mtawarira, Du Plessis (times two), Alberts, Coetzee, Pietersen and Michalak in their ranks, the Sharks have a puncher’s chance at Newlands, and then some.
But at the same time, how can you simply pooh-pooh the Stormers’ bloody-minded resilience and composure, not to mention their 100 percent home record this year?
Had they not been returning from Queensland, I might have leaned slightly the Sharks’ way.
On the grounds of likelier, superior freshness over 80 minutes and that remarkable aversion to defeat, my inclination is instead to favour the Stormers ... by a margin of no more than two or three points. *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing