Cape Town – Two of the four unbeaten sides left in Super Rugby face off at Newlands on Saturday as the Stormers and Sharks battle for top spot in the South African conference.
It’s possible that this could be a clash of the only remaining unbeaten teams as the game in Cape Town will close Round 3, which sees the Lions and Brumbies – who are also two from two – both on the road.
Solid wins from the opening fortnight have meant a positive start to the Robbie Fleck era. The bonus-point victory over the Bulls followed by the Stormers’ first win in Bloemfontein since 2012 both came largely thanks to set-piece domination (although the scrum wobbled slightly against the Cheetahs.)
The form of the starting tight-five, and their replacements off the bench, has mitigated the loss of young playmaker Robert du Preez, whose 12-week injury layoff has forced Fleck to bring another rookie into the flyhalf mix with Jean-Luc du Plessis joining the bench.
Although the Sharks have matched their hosts this weekend in picking up nine points from their openers, any result against the Kings must be taken with a pinch of salt and the Jaguares’ poor discipline meant the Sharks were able to get away with a massive error count at Kings Park last Saturday.
Marcell Coetzee’s eye-catching performance was a highlight though and his battle – in partnership with the Du Preez twins – against a reshuffled Stormers loose trio should be watched closely.
Out wide, an ageing Odwa Ndungane’s lack of pace was exposed badly last weekend and young Leolin Zas will be licking his lips at the prospect of showing up his much more experienced opposite number.
Although the Sharks are missing Pat Lambie, Joe Pietersen is a vastly experienced campaigner. He and Willie le Roux will be sure to test Kurt Coleman’s ability to control the game tactically. Coleman passed his first test against the Cheetahs, but he may face a sterner examination this time around.
The Stormers’ tackling stats are the best in the competition (with an average of only eight missed tackles per game so far) but the Sharks have made the most metres over the gainline of any side in Super Rugby in 2016, at an average of 550m.
Something’s got to give.
The last time these teams met: The Sharks beat a second-string Stormers side 34-12 in the final game of the 2015 regular season, outscoring their visitors five tries to none in an error-strewn affair at Kings Park. The result had zero impact on the overall standings as the Stormers had already booked their place in the playoffs as the winners of the South African Conference.
Players to watch: Springbok tighthead prop Frans Malherbe makes his first start of the season having impressed off the bench and will scrum against fellow Bok Tendai Mtawarira. The ‘Beast’ captains the Sharks and his battle with the Stormers’ co-captain at scrum time could set the tone for the entire game.
Team news: Fleck has made four changes, including a positional switch, to his starting line-up. There is just one injury-enforced change to the backline, with Coleman stepping in at flyhalf. This means that Jean-Luc du Plessis could make his Super Rugby debut if he comes off the bench. In the front row, props JC Janse van Rensburg and Malherbe get their first opportunity to start this season, with Oli Kebble and Vincent Koch taking their respective places on the replacements bench. Siya Kolisi will also get his first start too, with Schalk Burger taking the No 8 jersey and Nizaam Carr moving to No 6 in place of Sikhumbuzo Notshe, who is set for an impact role from the bench.
The Sharks lineup is unchanged.
Form: The Sharks are aiming for a sixth consecutive win in Super Rugby; the last time they went on a longer run was between 2006 and 2007 when they won a club record eight straight games. The spoils are split at three wins apiece in the six games since the Sharks beat the Stormers 26-19 in the 2012 semi-finals.
Predictions: History suggests we could be in for a close one. These teams have faced each other 25 times, with the Cape side winning 12 matches and the Durban team 13, with an average score of 21-21. Home-field advantage should seen the Stormers home by 7.
2015: Sharks won 34-12 in Durban
2015: Stormers won 29-13 in Cape Town
2014: Sharks won 34-10 in Cape Town
2014: Stormers won 21-19 in Durban
2013: Stormers won 22-15 in Cape Town
2013: Sharks won 12-6 in Durban
2012: Sharks won 26-19 in Cape Town
2012: Sharks won 25-20 in Durban
2012: Stormers won 15-12 in Cape Town
15 Cheslin Kolbe, 14 Dillyn Leyds, 13 Johnny Kotze, 12 Juan de Jongh (co-captain), 11 Leolin Zas, 10 Kurt Coleman, 9 Jano Vermaak, 8 Schalk Burger, 7 Siya Kolisi, 6 Nizaam Carr, 5 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe (co-captain), 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 JC Janse van Rensburg
Substitutes: 16 Scarra Ntubeni, 17 Oli Kebble, 18 Vincent Koch, 19 JD Schickerling, 20 Sikhumbuzo Notshe, 21 Nic Groom, 22 Jean-Luc du Plessis, 23 Huw Jones.
15 Willie Le Roux, 14 Odwa Ndungane, 13 Paul Jordaan, 12 Andre Esterhuizen, 11 JP Pietersen, 10 Joe Pietersen, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Daniel du Preez, 7 Jean-Luc du Preez, 6 Marcell Coetzee, 5 Stephan Lewies, 4 Etienne Oosthuizen, 3 Coenie Oosthuizen, 2 Franco Marais, 1 Tendai Mtawarira (captain)
Substitutes: 16 Kyle Cooper, 17 Juan Schoeman, 18 Lourens Adriaanse, 19 Hyron Andrews, 20 Philip van der Walt, 21 Michael Claassens, 22 Garth April 23, S’bura Sithole
Date: Saturday, March 12
Venue:Newlands, Cape Town
Kick-off: 17:15 local
Referee: Mike Fraser
Assistant referees: Ben O’Keeffe, Stuart Berry
TMO: Marius Jonker