Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - Back after a few weeks on the crocked list, Sharks and Springbok utility back JP Pietersen will need to get up to speed pretty quickly ... he almost certainly polices explosive Highlanders outside centre Malakai Fekitoa on Friday.
Pietersen has been confirmed as wearing the tourists’ No 13 jersey for the Super Rugby clash in Dunedin (09:35 SA time), replacing another stalwart in Waylon Murray who returns to the bench.
Muscular young Andre Esterhuizen, perhaps yet to fully convince that he offers a true cutting edge at this level in an offensive capacity, retains the inside centre role, and his alliance with vastly experienced, well-travelled Pietersen will offer the required physical dimensions - on paper, at any rate - to try to keep someone like Fekitoa quiet.
Not only is the Tongan-born 22-year-old fully expected to return to the Highlanders’ starting XV after a mandatory week’s break, but he will relish the opportunity to oppose once more the side against which he really announced himself to the rugby world almost exactly a year ago.
On April 25 2014, at a stunned Kings Park, Fekitoa scored one of the solo tries of the season, using a combination of brute force and elusive genius from some 55 metres out to put the fourth-try cherry on top of an unexpectedly convincing Highlanders win (34-18) in the Shark Tank.
The hard-pressed Sharks centres on that occasion were Frans Steyn, currently still serving one last week of a suspension, and Paul Jordaan, who has been badly missed this season for his flair for the unexpected and creative running lines.
That result near-humiliatingly arrested a healthy run by the Sharks (then under World Cup-winning Jake White’s tutelage) up to that point of seven victories from eight matches: some wags might be tempted to suggest the Durban-based outfit have never fully recovered their mojo since, especially as 2015 is proving so much more of a grim slog to them.
To their credit, the Sharks of last year did recover their composure sufficiently to top the SA conference, and gained revenge over the Otago side by beating them 31-27 in the first playoffs match before they were blown out of the water in an away semi-final against the Crusaders.
Again, however, Fekitoa, whose surname sounds aptly like a volcano, split their defence ragged during the three-tries-all cliffhanger with a spectacular bust-out for another personal try.
In that game, the Sharks had shifted Jordaan to No 12, perhaps not his most ideal berth, with Pietersen as his midfield ally; Steyn had taken over responsibility at flyhalf.
Now the Sharks encounter Fekitoa, who has since become an eight-cap All Black, all over again.
He ought to be suitably refreshed from his week of feet-up, and hardly prone to rustiness: the big No 13 had registered two tries in the triumph over the Blues a fortnight back.
It is probably no coincidence that the absence of Fekitoa and national-squad colleagues Ben and Aaron Smith saw the Highlanders come a cropper last weekend, where they had a notably poor first half before salvaging some degree of pride in a 31-18 away loss to the Brumbies.
Coach Jamie Joseph subsequently lamented in local newspaper the Otago Daily Times: “We missed our main penetrator at the back ... Malakai is our main guy there.”
With Pietersen back in the Sharks’ plans, there must be at least some chance that they will be capable of giving Fekitoa an overdue taste of his own medicine.
Although the 28-year-old from Stellenbosch has demonstrated it unusually seldom for the Sharks in recent months - perhaps suffering with the whole team’s too-frequent woes? - he is renowned for his own strong-striding threat from broken play or counter-attacking situations.
Friday, against a slippery customer directly opposite him, would be an excellent opportunity for Pietersen to remind everyone of his World Cup credentials later in the year ...Highlanders
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 (captain), 4. Stephan Lewies, 3. Lourens Adriaanse, 2. Bismarck du Plessis, 1. Tendai Mtawarira
Substitutes: 16. Franco Marais, 17. Dale Chadwick, 18. Matt Stevens, 19. Mouritz Botha, 20. Etienne Oosthuizen, 21. Conrad Hoffmann, 22. Lionel Cronje, 23. Waylon Murray
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