The Sharks refuse to get drawn into talk of thumping the beleaguered Cheetahs.
The teams could not be at more opposite poles – the impressive Sharks at the summit of the table, while the Cheetahs occupy 14th position having failed to win in seven matches.
However, South African derbies are renowned for being great levellers, and the Sharks’ coaching staff have stressed this to their squad. The Cheetahs last beat the Sharks in Super Rugby in 2006, but have beaten them numerous times in the Currie Cup, resulting in the Durban boys seeing them as their bogey team.
The Sharks are, however, heavily favoured to trounce their hosts in Bloemfontein. Sharks assistant coach Grant Bashford acknowledges that expectation, but remained wary of Naka Drotske’s charges.
‘They’ll be really up for this game, no doubt about it,’ Bashford told keo.co.za. ‘With South African derbies the form book goes out the window.
‘We’ve learnt our lesson about underestimating teams. I think that was the case against the Reds and that came back to bite us. Complacency won’t be a factor for us. We know they’re a quality unit despite their bad run. They’ll be confident of taking points off us and we don’t want to drop any, so it’s going to be a typical South African derby.’
Bashford predicted that the Cheetahs would focus their energy on dominating the forward battle, with set phases being their primary avenue of attack. He also noted their strength at the breakdown with two specialist fetchers in Heinrich Brüssow and Hendro Scholtz.
‘Our game relies heavily on quick ball at the breakdown and we’ve seen in the past when teams have stifled us there we’ve struggled,’ Bashford said.
‘We know they’ll come hard at us at ruck time and if they manage to slow our ball, breaking down their defensive line becomes doubly hard. So our ball-carriers will have to dominate the collisions and our cleaners have to be physically dominant.’
In keeping with their policy, the Sharks are likely to rotate their front row, but outside of that should field an unchanged XV. Winger JP Pietersen was expected to be fit but his ankle is healing slower than predicted. Luzuko Vulindlu, who was impressive in his first run-on start against the Hurricanes, will get another crack on the wing.
The Sharks are still awaiting the return of key players like Ruan Pienaar, Jean Deysel and Waylon Murray. Bashford said their rehabilitation was going well, but stressed that they would not rush them back into action.
‘We’re happy with how Ruan and Jean are coming on, but Waylon has worried us,’ he said.
‘He underwent surgery on his knee earlier in the year and was supposed to be back three weeks ago. But everytime he’s tried to run on it it’s puffed up quite badly. So the medical team are treating him conservatively.
‘Our feeling is that we should be getting most of the injured boys back in the next fortnight or so. We’ll probably have something resembling a full strength squad for our game against the Highlanders (2 May), which is a huge boost so close to the end of the tournament.’
By Ryan Vrede