The Sharks put their unbeaten record on the line in their opening Australasian tour match of the Super 14 rugby series against the Hurricanes in Wellington on Saturday.
The Durban-based team, along with table-topping Canterbury Crusaders, are the only two teams yet to taste defeat in the southern hemisphere provincial competition after winning their opening six matches in South Africa.
This will be the second-placed Sharks’ first acid test, against the fourth-placed Hurricanes. The two teams have split their 12 previous matches, six wins each. But significantly the Sharks have lost their last three games in the New Zealand capital.
With the Crusaders having the weekend off, it is the Durban outfit’s big chance to make some inroads into the Crusaders’ eight-point buffer, but the Hurricanes will be an immense test for the Sharks.
”It really is a big night for us and our players always respond to the big occasions,” Sharks assistant coach John Plumtree said on Thursday.
”We have the players and most importantly we have the attitude.
”The thing is if you want to beat the top teams you have to play with great intensity and concentration for longer than 10 minutes, as we have been doing.
”You have to keep going for the whole match.”
The Hurricanes gave the Crusaders some anxious moments before going down 20-13 at home last week and have made just one change, with Tane Tu’ipulotu replacing Tamati Ellison at inside centre.
Francois Steyn is at centre for the Sharks with Frenchman Frederic Michalak back at flyhalf after being on the bench for the last two matches.
Auckland Blues coach David Nucifora is expecting a fired-up New South Wales Waratahs for their Sydney match on Saturday.
The eighth-placed Waratahs have announced they will not renew Ewen McKenzie’s coaching contract beyond this season, apparently because of the team’s dour playing style.
McKenzie has presided over 72 matches and, with a finals appearance in 2005 and semifinal showing in 2006, he will also end his five-year association as the most successful NSW coach in Super history.
Nucifora said he believed the Waratahs players would react positively to the development, at least in the interim.
”He’s a pretty popular fellow so I’m sure there’ll be a bit of ‘Let’s do it for Link’ [McKenzie] attitude going around over there,” Nucifora said.
”Whether you can carry that for another seven or eight weeks remains to be seen but I’m sure it will give them a kick-a-long this week.”
Nucifora has rejigged his loose forward trio and reinstated Anthony Tuitavake to the wing as the third-placed Blues look for their third win on the trot.
Wallaby centre pair Stirling Mortlock and Adam Ashley-Cooper return from injury for the ninth-placed ACT Brumbies against the Waikato Chiefs in Canberra on Friday.
Mortlock, who underwent shoulder surgery following last year’s World Cup, is back for his 100th Super cap, while Ashley-Cooper makes his first appearance since an ankle injury in round one.
The Bulls have to beat the Western Force in Perth on Friday to save face, and in so doing also help the Stormers in their charge for the semifinals.
The Bulls have been a big flop in the defence of their Super 14 title, winning two of their seven games to flounder in 11th spot, while the fifth-placed Force stumbled to a home defeat against the Stormers last week.
In the weekend’s other games, the last-placed Otago Highlanders host third-from-bottom Golden Lions in Dunedin on Friday and the Cheetahs take on Queensland Reds in Bloemfontein in Saturday. — Sapa-AFP