The Absa Currie Cup game between the Sharks and Vodacom Cheetahs in Durban could be the game of the tournament so far.
Both sides are renowned for their attacking style of play and with the weather forecast predicting clear conditions, fans can expecting to see running rugby.
The Sharks will have the edge in the backline, with the direct approach of flyhalf Brad Barritt sure to test Willem de Waal’s defence. Against the Vodacom Blue Bulls, Barritt stood flat for large portions of the game, with forwards running off his shoulder at pace and attacking the channel between Morne Steyn and Dries Stoltz.
This created overlaps as the defence was committed to the tackle, and in Grant Rees, Gobani Bobo, Craig Burden, Waylon Murray and Odwa Ndungane, the hosts have enough pace and unpredictability in their backs to give De Waal and Co. problems out wide.
However, the Cheetahs should be up for the challenge and De Waal’s prolific boot will be poised to punish any indiscretion or impetuosity by the young Sharks. The Currie Cup’s top points scorer in 2004 and 2005′s tactical and goal kicking has again been flawless this season, and his accuracy from long-range will keep the Sharks loose-trio from being over-eager at the breakdown.
Fullback Bevan Fortuin will be the catalyst for the Cheetahs backs. The 27-year-old’s regular forays into the line will have to be neutralised, otherwise he will punish the Sharks with his elusive running and creativity.
In Barritt/Pienaar and Claassens/De Waal both sides have halfback combinations of high quality.
An enthralling breakdown battle looms, as AJ Venter, Warrren Britz and Jacques Botes look to build on their performance from last week and gain the ascendency over the equally impressive back row of Ryno van der Merwe, Bian Vermaak and captain Hendro Scholtz. Scholtz has played more of a ball carrying role this season and this will allow Van der Merwe the freedom to compete at the breakdown.
Front foot ball is the key for attack-minded sides like these and the tight-five’s will be looking to create a platform for their backs to attack. There’ll be no love lost as Sharks prop, Bismarck du Plessis scrums down against his brother Jannie.
BJ Botha is back to bolster the Sharks after undergoing a minor operation. The prop was arguably South Africa’s player of the Vodacom Super 14, and his performances secured him a call-up to the Springbok training camp, before the neck injury hampered what would surely have been a regular starting spot in the Bok front-row.
Sharks coach Dick Muir will be acutely aware that his side has lost their last four encounters to the defending champions and perhaps this contributed to his mini media blackout this past week. One can only assume Muir wanted as little distraction for his players as possible ahead of this top-of-the-table clash.
Natal Sharks: 15 Odwa Ndungane, 14 Waylon Murray, 13 Gcobani Bobo, 12 Grant Rees, 11 Craig Burden; 10 Bradley Barritt, 9 Ruan Pienaar; 8 AJ Venter (C), 7 Jacques Botes, 6 Warren Britz, 5 Steven Sykes, 4 Wouter Moore, 3 Danie Saayman, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Kees Lensing. Replacements (from): Scott Mathie, Frans Steyn, Mzwandile Stick, Andries Strauss, BJ Botha, Skipper Badenhorst, Keegan Daniel and Ryan Kankowski.
Vodacom Free State Cheetahs: 15 Bevin Fortuin, 14 Giscard Pieters, 13 JW Jonker, 12 Dale Heidtmann, 11 Gavin Passens, 10 Willem de Waal, 9 Michael Claassens, 8 Ryno van der Merwe, 7 Bian Vermaak, 6 Hendro Scholtz (C), 5 Barend Pieterse, 4 Corniel van Zyl, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Richardt Strauss, 1 Wian du Preez. Replacements: 16 Jaco du Toit, 17 Ollie le Roux, 18 Rory Duncan, 19 Kabamba Floors, 20 Falie Oelschig, 21 Gaffie du Toit, 22 Phillip Burger.
By Ryan Vrede