South Africa’s Coastal Sharks face a moment of truth against the toughest team in rugby’s Super 14 when they put their chances of a home play-off on the line against the Canterbury Crusaders in Christchurch on Friday.
The Sharks are feeling the effects of five demanding weeks on the road in Australia and New Zealand, which have seen them crashing to consecutive defeats and a mounting injury toll.
The Durban team must beat the six-time champions Crusaders in Christchurch — where they have a six-from-six losing record — if they are to return home with a chance of playing for a home semifinal later this month.
Within the past fortnight, the Sharks have lost lock Steven Sykes, French flyhalf Frederic Michalak, captain Johann Muller and centre Bradley Barritt, while flanker Keegan Daniel and hooker Bismarck du Plessis are doubts for the game against the Crusaders.
Last weekend’s emphatic 25-10 defeat to the Waratahs left the Sharks in third place, level on points with the Waikato Chiefs, and with the Wellington Hurricanes and Western Stormers poised one point adrift.
A loss to the Crusaders will probably dump them out of the top four as they return for their remaining home games against the Central Cheetahs and Chiefs.
”We have let ourselves down, and now we must fix the damage,” coach Dick Muir said on Thursday.
”That is the bottom line here. We need a result this week. We must get on that plane with a win if we are to achieve our pre-season goal of having the luxury of a home semifinal.”
Coach Robbie Deans, whose Crusaders lead the field by seven points and can guarantee a home semifinal with victory Friday, is preparing for a ding-dong battle with the desperate Sharks.
”It’s the last game before they head home. They won’t want to cross the ocean again [and play their semifinal away], so it’s very important to them,” Deans said. ”We’re expecting the best from them.”
The Waratahs, who leapfrogged the Sharks into second spot with their fifth straight win, have a testing challenge away to the Northern Bulls in Pretoria on Saturday.
The Sydney team, who have reached the play-offs three times in 12 seasons, have won twice in Pretoria in six visits, but the Bulls, who won last year’s Super 14 crown, have won just three of their 10 games this campaign.
The Waratahs are plotting a daring hit-and-run, leaving Sydney just two days before the match to play the Bulls at altitude.
Anticipating a forward onslaught from the Bulls, coach Ewen McKenzie has recalled fit-again Wallaby flanker Rocky Elsom and opted for an extra prop on his bench and just two backline reserves.
”We want to play like we did against the Highlanders by going through more phases, scoring more tries and winning, and hopefully that will help the other South African teams,” Bulls coach Frans Ludeke said on Thursday.
The Chiefs begin a three-game tour against the Western Force in Perth on Saturday looking for their sixth straight win after a run that has propelled them into the top four.
While the Chiefs have won both meetings comfortably against the Force, they are without injured All Black scrumhalf Brendon Leonard, who scored a hat-trick in last year’s 64-36 rampage.
The Hurricanes are expected to beat the bottom-placed Golden Lions in Wellington on Saturday to continue their semifinal push, while the Stormers have a tough test against the resurgent ACT Brumbies in Cape Town the same day.
The Brumbies, along with the Auckland Blues and Force, will bow out of semifinal contention if beaten this weekend.
The Blues travel to Brisbane where they have beaten the Queensland Reds just once there in six meetings, breaking their drought two years ago.
In the remaining match of no- playoff interest, the 13th-placed Cheetahs host the 12th-placed Otago Highlanders in Bloemfontein on Friday. — Sapa-AFP