Veteran Sharks flanker Warren Britz has backed his side to secure five points against the Pumas despite the pack being overhauled.
The Sharks were forced to make four changes in the forwards, and most significantly break up the back row combination, after AJ Venter received a Springbok call-up and Jacques Botes was injured in the game against Vodacom Western Province.
Lock Steven Sykes and prop Danie Saayman are the other casualties of the bruising encounter.
But the 33-year-old Britz, who captains the side in Venters absence, dispelled the notion that this will weaken a Sharks pack who have performed above expectation this season.
“AJ and Jacques are obviously very important players for us and their experience has been the key to winning a lot of the tighter games,” he told Keo.co.za.
“That combination has been honed in a tough Super 14 and has served us well to this point, and you always want consistency in any team, but we are a side with depth and the changes won’t rock us.”
The experienced Jaco Gouws is preferred to SA Under 21 star Keegan Daniel but 21-year-old Ryan Kankowski is retained at No 8, and Britz heaped praise on both the young bucks.
“Both of them have been amazing so far,” he said. “They bring an added dimension to the team because they have really good ball skills and are very quick.
“But Jaco will be hungry for game time and he will add some muscle to the pack.”
Gouws captained the side in a loss against Griquas earlier this year but has struggled with injury since.
The Pumas, despite their dismal form in the tournament, have traditionally proved to be a difficult team for the Sharks to beat. The Durban-based side were unconvincing in their 34-16 first-round win over the Witbank outfit, and Britz is well aware that they have the potential the dent their ambitions of a home semi-final.
“In the past we haven’t played that well against them and matches are always going to be tough encounters,” he said.
“They’ve come off the back of a few hidings recently, and so although we will back ourselves to get the five points we will also be cautious of them.
“They have some quality players in their pack and that shows, because many ex Pumas are now Sharks players, and we are expecting them to try and dominate us up front.
“They will want to prove a point.”
Coach Dick Muir had similar concerns. “The Pumas are a wounded animal and those are dangerous,” he said.
But for all the downplay, the Sharks are overwhelming favourites.
The Pumas come off the back of an all-to-familiar drubbing, having lost 60-27 to Griquas at the weekend, while the Sharks secured a deserved victory over traditional rivals Western Province.
And Britz said there were some valuable lessons learnt in the rain-soaked encounter at the Absa Stadium.
“What was really good about that win was that we got ourselves in a position to secure the points and capitalised on that.
“That hasn’t always been the case this season,” he said. “We’ve let some [games] slip when we really should’ve won.
“But now the guys know what it takes to win in tight situations and that can only benefit us if we get into the knockout phase where games are often won by small margins.”
The Sharks have a fortnight in which they can take giant steps towards their goal of a home semi-final. The Pumas game virtually guarantees them five points and a home win over over the Griquas next week could leave Dick Muir’s boys placed at the top of the Absa Currie Cup log if results favour them.
The four other title hopefuls play each other this weekend with Province at home to the Vodacom Blue Bulls and the Lions hosting the Vodacom Cheetahs.
Sharks: 15. JP Pietersen 14. Dusty Noble 13. Waylon Murray 12. Grant Rees 11. Brent Russell 10. Francois Steyn 9. Scott Mathie 8. Ryan Kankowski 7. Jaco Gouws 6. Warren Britz (Captain) 5. Alistair Hargreaves 4. Wouter Moore 3. Robbie Harris 2. Bismarck du Plessis 1. Kees Lensing Replacements: 16. Skipper Badenhorst 17. Deon Carstens 18. Johan Snyman 19. Keegan Daniel 20. Sandile Nxumalo 21. Gcobani Bobo 22. Mzwandile Stick
By Ryan Vrede