The Sharks make a long haul trip to Wellington to take on a red-hot Hurricanes side this Saturday.
Gary Gold and his charges will head south to take on the Hurricanes with the underdogs tag firmly attached to their names. The Natalians are coming off the back of a rather poor season but a victory here would quell what is becoming a very agitated supporter base.
Hurricanes v Sharks | Saturday 23 July | Westpac Stadium | 09:35 (CAT)
To Win (80 Mins)
Hurricanes 1/7 | Draw 25/1 | Sharks 9/2
Hurricanes (-13.5) 9/10 | Sharks (+13.5)
Last year’s losing finalists come into this one on a red-hot run of form that has seen them rack up five victories on the trot. Ironically enough, the Hurricanes' last defeat came at the hands of the Sharks back in May where they were outsmarted and out fetched by a magnificent Natal back row.
Things have taken a turn for the better for Chris Boyd’s side since then. They’ve shored up those midfield defensive frailties that saw them end up on the wrong end of some rather large scorelines – remember that dreadful 52-10 opening round defeat to the Brumbies – and they have a flyhalf who is in the form of his life.
Beauden Barrett may have started New Zealand’s June series as backup to Aaron Cruden but by the time the Rugby Championship rolls around, I reckon the New Plymouth native will have usurped Cruden.
The Hurricanes flyhalf has been at his mercurial best this term, running in some sensational tries, throwing passes that even Carlos Spencer would envy, and defending like a Trojan. He has also made huge improvements to his kicking game and currently boasts a 69.2% goal kicking success rate. While he is still capable of missing the occasional sitter, these moments are a lot less frequent than they once were.
Barrett isn’t the only Hurricane who will be giving a current All Black incumbent some food for thought. His half-back partner, TJ Perenara, has also been in sensational touch. And while Aaron Smith is by far and away the best scrumhalf in world rugby, Perenara’s performances will perhaps be making Smith feel slightly less secure about how set in stone his All Black starting berth is.
It’s not only the Hurricanes backs who have impressed this season. Their front row of Reg Goodes, Chris Eves, and skipper Dane Coles have anchored proceedings well. The trio were magnificent against a much-hyped Crusaders tight five last week and lay a brilliant platform at the set phase.
The most impressive thing about this Hurricanes side has to be Ardie Savea, though. The tear away flanker put in one of the performances of the season during last week’s 25 point victory over the Crusaders.
The younger brother of Julian was everywhere – I questioned whether the early morning beers were causing me to see double, such was Ardie’s work rate – making an absolute menace of himself at the breakdown and linking up brilliantly in open play. He could have a field day this Saturday as the Sharks' pack aren’t the most mobile bunch of lads.
In terms of team news, both Reg Goodes and Julian Savea miss out. The former has been dropped while the latter sustained a concussion last Saturday. The impressive Jason woodward shifts to the wing in place of Savea. Woodward's vacant outside-centre berth is filled by the returning Matt Proctor while Goodes' place is taken by Loni 'The Tongan Bear' Uhlia'.
I was really disappointed with the Sharks' performance against the Sunwolves last week. It pretty much encapsulated their season; flashes of brilliance smattered with way too many moments of absurdity. Their defensive structure looked a far cry from what it was at the beginning of the tournament and if they are to have any chance of winning this one, their defensive coach, Omaar Mouneimne, is going to have to get these players defending as a unit again.
The Sharks loosies will also have to up their work rate as they looked rather laboured last Friday evening. The Sunwolves are by no means a team filled with breakdown specialists, yet they still managed to pilfer quite a bit of the Sharks ball. If the Natalians allow the ‘Canes to gain dominance at the breakdown, then they are going to be in for an arduous and unrewarding night out in Wellington.
The Sharks will also need more from young gun Garth April who will have to step up to the plate with Patrick Lambie once again sidelined. The former Western Province man will have to up the kicking and defensive sides of his game as he’s struggled in these two areas recently.
In terms of team news, the Sharks will welcome back both Willie le Roux and Paul Jordaan who will hopefully give them a bit more cutting edge on attack. While in the forward pack, both Tendai ‘Beast’ Mtawarira and Jean Luc-du Preez are expected to return to the starting XV.
The Stats that Matter
The Sharks have proved a bit of a bogey team for the Hurricanes in the past and have actually won four of the last seven encounters between the sides.
The Hurricanes finished the regular season with 11 wins from their 15 games which saw them top the New Zealand, Australasian and Overall Conference standings while the Sharks snuck into the playoffs by claiming the best runner-up spot in the Combined African Conference. The Natalians only managed nine wins and a draw from their 15 round robin fixtures.
The host for Friday’s fixture ended the regular season with a points differential of positive 321 while Gary Gold’s charges managed a much lower total of plus 91. The Sharks did concede fewer points than the ’Canes however, with the Natalians shipping 269 and the men from Wellington ceding 314.
Last Five Head To Head Results
2016 Sharks 32-15 Hurricanes (Sharks Home)
2015 Hurricanes 32-24 Sharks (Hurricanes Home)
2014 Sharks 27-9 Hurricanes (Sharks Home)
2012 Hurricanes 42-18 Sharks (Hurricanes Home)
2011 Sharks 40-24 Hurricanes (Sharks Home)
Verdict: Hurricanes (-13.5) 9/10
The Hurricanes will have far too much firepower for the Sharks to deal with. Once again, wait for the Hurricanes minus handicap to come out and before firing!