The Sharks were the last South African team to down the Crusaders in Christchurch and there is just an outside chance that they could do it again when the two sides clash on Friday.
That would seem a nonsensical statement if the Crusaders were fielding their strongest possible team, and make no mistake, no-one is saying that the Sharks will start as favourites. That would indeed be idiotic, as even when they are missing key players the Crusaders do have the depth to carry them through. They are not the reigning champions just because of their star players.
However, if there is one thing that has shone through crystal clear in this most unpredictable of Super Rugby seasons it is that the identity of the personnel does matter. A few weeks ago when the Lions got back Warren Whiteley they looked a different team on a day when they faced a Chiefs side that had correspondingly lost key players in Brodie Retallick and of course the unfortunate Damian McKenzie.
Both those players are so huge for the Chiefs – and let’s not forget they are still labouring without Sam Cane, the team’s co-captain who broke his neck against the Springboks in Pretoria last year – that it makes a massive difference when they are not there. Ditto the likes of Whiteley and Malcolm Marx for the Lions, and Eben Etzebeth and Duane Vermeulen for the Stormers and Bulls respectively for that matter.
There are four top All Blacks missing from the Crusaders team to play the Sharks because of the All Black rest protocols, with Sam Whitelock, Richie Mo’unga, Ryan Crotty and David Havili all sitting out this game. Of those perhaps the most significant absentees are Mo’unga and Crotty.
No matter what team you are talking about, it is always a risk when you change both players in the key backline decision making axis of 10/12 – ask the Stormers after their recent home loss to the Brumbies – and it should not be forgotten that the last time the Crusaders lost, which was their unexpected defeat to the Waratahs, they were without Mo’unga. That may not have been a coincidence.
Okay, that game was away from Christchurch, and the Crusaders are particularly formidable at home. Their record tells you that. But what should not be overlooked is that the Crusaders resting players coincides with the Sharks, even though they will be missing Beast, who has returned home, heading back to close to full strength in the pack. With Ruan Botha starting for the first time in a while, and Jean-Luc du Preez now going into his second game in the No 7 jersey, the Sharks do boast a formidable forward unit.
Will it be good enough to match a Crusaders unit without Whitelock? Probably not, but if they do front, the lack of continuity in the backline could just give the Sharks, who have often reserved their 150% performances for a game against the Crusaders, a window of opportunity. A famous win would be just what the game in this country needs at the moment given how mediocre the South African Super Rugby challenge has been up to now.
Given that the Crusaders are far and away the top team again this year, and are also significantly ahead of the other New Zealand challengers, the next three weeks will answer a few questions relating to the chasm between Kiwi and South African rugby.
The Crusaders head to South Africa after facing the Sharks to play the Bulls and the Stormers in Pretoria and Cape Town respectively. Given that they are resting the top players now, we can anticipate they will be at full strength at Loftus and Newlands and both games will be massive ones for the Bok contenders in those teams and the South African rugby psyche.
The Bulls should rate their chances of squaring up to the Crusaders with some of their confidence restored as they shouldn’t have too much problem dispatching the Waratahs at Loftus on Saturday. The Stormers’ mood will depend on how they get through a difficult away fixture against the Jaguares in Buenos Aires later on the same day.
The Jaguares put 50 points past the Sharks in Durban a few weeks back and also beat the Bulls in Pretoria so it goes without saying that this match is far from a gimme for the Stormers. In fact, the hosts, who are effectively an international side, must start as favourites on their home field.
WEEKEND PREVIEWS AND PREDICTIONS
South African Conference
Crusaders v Cell C Sharks (Christchurch, Friday 09.35)
No Richie Mo’unga, no Ryan Crotty, no Sam Whitelock, no David Havili… But the Crusaders do have All Black captain Kieran Read in their team, and captain Matt Todd even without Whitelock still has a pack that is loaded with All Blacks. It is hard to see the Sharks dominating that unit, and they need to dominate in order to win as they don’t have too much else to their game. So the smart money should be on the Crusaders forwards, and their scrum in particular, laying the platform for a fairly comfortable win. The fact though that the hosts have a new flyhalf and have had to move an outside centre to inside centre does offer a window of opportunity for a Sharks team that has lost Tendai ‘Beast’ Mtawarira but has gained two of their most physical forwards in the form Ruan Botha and Jean-Luc du Plessis back in the past two weeks. If they can front at forward, there might just be a chance.
Prediction: Crusaders to win by 12
Vodacom Bulls v Waratahs (Pretoria, Saturday 15.05)
The Bulls have been unfortunate with injuries, and a few other things, this year. Imagine how formidable they would be if Lood de Jager was paired up with RG Snyman in the second row and Jason Jenkins was playing off the bench. Now they are without their star outside back, Jesse Kriel, possibly for the rest of the season. By “other things” we are referring to the suspension that Schalk Brits incurred for having Akker van der Merwe climb all over him in the Durban derby a month ago. This week will tell us how they are likely to fair without Kriel’s attacking X-factor and his defensive organisational abilities. Fortunately the Waratahs shouldn’t provide too much of a test, particularly if the Bulls answer coach Pote Human’s call for them to be at their most physical. That will come the following week against the Crusaders.
Prediction: Bulls to win by 15
Jaguares v DHL Stormers (Buenos Aires, Saturday 21.40)
The Stormers were only due to name their team on Thursday evening so this is being written before we know their starting team for this crucial clash with a team that is becoming dangerous in the South African conference. What we do know is that skipper Siya Kolisi and star forward Pieter-Steph du Toit will be absent, plus Springbok tighthead prop Frans Malherbe. But if coach Robbie Fleck chooses wisely he should still have a formidable pack, particularly if he pairs Jaco Coetzee and Cobus Wiese on the flanks. The staunchness of the Stormers forward unit gives them a chance against a Jaguares team that will be desperate to avenge their recent heavy defeat in Cape Town and which has had the ante lifted by the fact that they are about to head on a four match tour of Australia. At home though the Jaguares, after their wins in South Africa and their easy win over the Bulls a few weeks back, must start as slight favourites.
Prediction: Jaguares to scrape it.
Reds v Sunwolves (Brisbane, Friday 11.45)
Prediction: Reds by 10
Hurricanes v Rebels (Wellington, Saturday 07.15)
Prediction: Hurricanes by 10
Highlanders v Chiefs (Dunedin, Saturday 09.35)
Prediction: Highlanders by 8
Brumbies v Blues (Canberra, Saturday 11.45)
Prediction: Brumbies have travelled around the world so Blues to scrape it