THE Sharks face the toughest challenge of their New Zealand tour tomorrow when they bump the Chiefs in New Plymouth, says former Springbok scrumhalf Michael Claassens.
The much-travelled Claassens, who played for the Cheetahs, Bath and Toulouse before arriving in Durban after the Super Rugby season last year, will take over from the injured Cobus Reinach as the Sharks’ first-choice scrumhalf against the Chiefs.
The Chiefs head the overall Super Rugby log with their only loss in eight games coming at home against the Lions and Claassens, who won eight Springbok Test caps between 2004-07, said they were the form team in the competition.
“You have to expect anything and everything from them on the day. We are very aware of their attack and they can hurt you from anywhere on the field.”
But the 33-year-old Claassens believes the Chiefs’ helter-skelter approach does provide opponents with counter-attacking opportunities.
“They can be quite loose so we will try and force turnovers and turn defence into attack.”
Claassens said the Lions had stunned the Chiefs 36-32 in Hamilton early in March by playing them at their own high-tempo game.
“We have certainly learnt from that but we know — and we have spoken about it at length — that if we don’t make our tackles against the Chiefs, then we are in for a long night.”
Claassens will again partner the inexperienced Garth April at halfback and said he was impressed with the youngster’s showing in the narrow win over the Highlanders.
“He went well and we all know he has plenty of talent. He will only get better by playing more and I think he will be up for the challenge on Friday.”
Claassens said the Chiefs’ approach would result in a fast and furious contest.
“It is up to us, the experienced guys in the squad like Keegan [Daniel], JP [Pietersen], Willie [Le Roux] and, off the bench, Odwa [Ndungane] and Jean [Deysel] to keep the players calm and provide direction.”
The Sharks scrumhalf said the defence of the team was a strength but the focus in recent weeks had been on improving the attack.
“It showed against the Highlanders that we play better when we attack more and it is the case of keeping a balance between the two.”
He said the players were “fresh and ready” for their last New Zealand tour game and “excited to be facing the best New Zealand team”.
“We threw away the Blues game but the win over the Highlanders has boosted everyone and we have another big opportunity at the Yarrow Stadium,” Claassens added.
The Chiefs named their starting line-up yesterday and, like the Sharks, they have been hit by injury. Coach Dave Rennie yesterday said that All Black scrumhalf Tawera Kerr-Barlow had been ruled out for about two months with a fractured hand, a friendly fire incident after clashing with flyhalf Aaron Cruden’s head in the weekend’s dramatic 28-27 win over the Hurricanes.
Wing James Lowe and centre Charlie Ngatai were again not considered because of shoulder injuries. Wing Glen Fisiiahi has aggravated a knee injury at training while prop Atu Moli (shoulder), lock Michael Allardice and loose forwards Tom Sanders and Maama Vaikpulu all suffered concussion against the Hurricanes.
“We have had a short week so they just don’t have enough time to get through all the [concussion] protocols,” Rennie said yesterday.
Rennie has made five changes to his starting team. Hika Elliot and Japan Test prop Hiroshi Yamashita will pack down in the front-row. Dominic Bird returns from injury to partner fellow-All Black Brodie Retallick at lock.
Taleni Seu is promoted from the replacements and joins Sam Cane and Michael Leitch in the backrow. Anton Lienert-Brown returns from injury to start at inside centre.
“Injuries do help in growing your depth,” Rennie said. “It gives others opportunities and we’ve got a good group. I know we’re a young side but I’m happy with their effort.
“In the end, every team suffers injuries and you just have to get on with it. We’ll have a reasonable side on the park against the Sharks and we won’t be using injuries as an excuse.”
The match kicks off at 9.35 am tomorrow (SA time).
Chiefs: 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Toni Pulu, 13 Seta Tamanivalu, 12 Anton Lienert-Brown, 11 Sam McNicol, 10 Aaron Cruden (co-captain), 9 Brad Weber, 8 Michael Leitch, 7 Sam Cane (co-captain), 6 Taleni Seu, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Dominic Bird, 3 Hiroshi Yamashita, 2 Hika Elliot, 1 Mitchell Graham.Substitutes: 16 Nathan Harris, 17 Siate Tokolahi, 18 Kane Hames, 19 James Tucker, 20 Lachlan Boshier, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Andrew Horrell, 23 Shaun Stevenson.
Sharks: 15. Willie le Roux, 14. JP Pietersen, 13. Paul Jordaan, 12. Andre Esterhuizen, 11. Lwazi Mvovo, 10. Garth April, 9. Michael Claassens, 8. Daniel du Preez, 7. Jean-Luc du Preez, 6. Keegan Daniel (captain), 5. Stephan Lewies, 4. Etienne Oosthuizen, 3. Lourens Adriaanse, 2. Kyle Cooper, 1. Dale Chadwick. Substitutes: 16. Chiliboy Ralepelle, 17. Thomas du Toit, 18. Coenie Oosthuizen, 19. Hyron Andrews, 20. Jean Deysel, 21. Stefan Ungerer, 22. Joe Pietersen, 23. Odwa Ndungane.