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Rugby | Vodacom Super Rugby

Rob du Preez © Gallo Images

Curve ball for the Sharks



The final round of Vodacom Super Rugby amounts to a final for many teams, but not everyone has their destiny in their own hands or for that matter the same intention or focus.

That is the problem for the Cell C Sharks, who by losing in Cape Town last week made it possible for the Rebels to head to Dunedin for their final match with the uncomplicated target of needing to win.

Okay, so that is not an easy task, for the Highlanders don’t lose in Dunedin often, neither have the Rebels travelled well. But there is a caveat. The Highlanders, unfortunately for the Sharks, don’t have anything to play for in the sense that they are already in the play-offs and it would take a set of freaky and most unlikely results for them to change their current sixth position on the log.

That being so, their coach Aaron Mauger has decided to rest a clutch of key players, including star All Blacks Ben and Aaron Smith, as well as another internationally capped player, Luke Whitelock. Senior players such as hooker Ash Dixon, flank Elliot Dixon and centre Rob Thompson will also be sitting out.

Knowing that their opponents have seen fit to rest important players, and that they may lack hunger for victory, will give hope to a Rebels team that itself is going into the game under-strength - though for entirely different reasons. In their case the absences of Wallabies Will Genia, Dane Haylett-Petty and Adam Coleman are all injury enforced.

The point though is that one team is hungry to win whereas the other is less so, and that could spell trouble for the Sharks, who themselves may just be facing an under-strength team in their must-win final match of the season against the Jaguares at Kings Park.

The Jaguares team was not to hand at the time of writing but they were training under-strength earlier in the week and may have decided that they’d rather prepare for their appearance in the quarterfinal than bank on the Bulls win over the Emirates Lions that will give them a chance to play for top spot in the South African conference.

It is that stage of the competition, you can call it the Super Rugby silly season if you like. Teams that want to go far in the competition from now do need to bank some energy for the play-offs, and if they are in a position where they can do that because they have already qualified, they would be stupid not to.

What is certain though is that the late Saturday game is a non-negotiable for the Sharks if they want to qualify for the play-offs. And the same stands for the Lions in their quest for certain top spot in the conference, particularly as they will be playing ahead of the Durban game so will not have the comfort of knowing the result.

The Bulls, who regained some of their momentum last week, will be wanting to make it as hard as possible for their near neighbours to get what they want, and trans-Jukskei derbies are always fascinating duels and absorbing to watch.

What neutral South Africans should be hoping for though is for a Lions win as they are by far the best local bet in the competition and their scrumhalf Ross Cronje is right in what he says - they do have the advantage in experience. Experience that is not only in terms of players with games and international caps behind them, but also in playing Super Rugby play-off games.

The Lions have disappointed this season if you compare their performances to 2016 and 2017, but they are now in familiar territory and some of their star players have returned to the mix just at the right time. If they win on Saturday don’t bet too much against them going to the final again, even if this time they have to do it the hard way by travelling after a home quarterfinal. That is the scenario they will face if the Waratahs beat the Brumbies in their last game, thus securing second position on the overall log that will give them home advantage until the final.

WEEKEND FIXTURES

South African Conference

Emirates Lions v Vodacom Bulls (Johannesburg, Saturday 3.05pm)

Bulls coach John Mitchell has spoken a lot about his squad’s depth, or lack of it, in recent weeks, and it will be further tested in this final game due to the absence of Handre Pollard. The flyhalf is one of several Boks missing from a Bulls line-up that probably sustained its biggest blow when Lood de Jager was ruled out for the rest of the season a few weeks before the June break. Manie Libbok wears the No 10 jersey in Pollard’s absence. The Lions were in dominant form for the first hour of their recent game against the Sharks and threw that one away through rank poor decision making. If they get that latter part right this time they should complete the ominous warning to future opponents that they were set to sound in Durban before their late game walkabout.

Prediction: Lions by 20.

Cell C Sharks v Jaguares (Durban, Saturday 5.15pm)

The Sharks have been boosted by the inclusion of Dan du Preez, who struggled with a nerve injury in his neck against the Stormers and had to undergo scans after the game. When Du Preez was stretchered off at Newlands it looked ominous and there would have been a lot of concern, so having him cleared to play would have been a positive jolt to the confidence. But S’bu Nkosi’s injury, that has ruled him out of the first half of the Rugby Championship at the very least, was a blow, even though Kobus van Wyk is a more than capable replacement (the Sharks do have a lot of depth on the wing). It will be in the forwards that the Sharks will look to win the game though, for it is off a solid platform upfront that much of the Sharks’ much improved backline attack this season has been based. It all depends on what happens in Dunedin earlier in the day as to how motivated the Sharks will be, but let’s assume the Rebels will lose - in that case the Sharks will have the motivation against a Jaguares team that by kick-off should know that the Lions have secured top spot in the conference and that they should be reserving their bullets for the quarterfinal.

Prediction: Sharks by 8

AUSTRALASIAN CONFERENCE

Chiefs v Hurricanes (Hamilton, Friday 9.35am)
Prediction: Chiefs by less than 7.

Reds v Sunwolves (Brisbane, Friday 11.45am)
Prediction: Reds by 12.

Highlanders v Rebels (Dunedin, Saturday 7.15am)
Prediction: Highlanders by 7.

Crusaders v Blues (Christchurch, Saturday 9.35am)
Prediction: Crusaders by 15

Waratahs v Brumbies (Sydney, Saturday 11.45am)
Prediction: Waratahs to win



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