The Sharks could field a formidable team against the Highlanders. They could also field a decidedly depleted one.
At present there are a number of injury concerns over key players. The most important of those, Ruan Pienaar, who sustained a knee ligament injury against the Reds on 14 March, has run freely for the last two weeks.
Yet the Sharks refuse to be optimistic about his chances of playing against the Highlanders on Saturday and are treating him conservatively.
‘We hope to have Ruan back but we’ll wait to see how the knee responds in training,’ Sharks assistant coach Grant Bashford told keo.co.za.
‘It so hard to be optimistic with injuries of this nature because we’ve seen in the past with Butchie [former Sharks flyhalf Butch James] that they tend to flare up when you think they’re in the clear.’
If Pienaar is fit he’ll start at flyhalf with Frans Steyn shifting to inside centre. Who starts at outside centre and left wing is still in doubt.
JP Pietersen didn’t train on Monday evening as the Sharks management felt he needed to put minimal stress on an ankle that still isn’t fully healed. Adi Jacobs suffered a shoulder injury in their defeat to the Crusaders a fortnight ago and isn’t being exposed to contact.
The most disappointing news from a Sharks perspective is that the knee injury which sidelined Waylon Murray for the majority of the Super 14 recurred in a Vodacom match this weekend. He will play no part in Saturday’s game.
The Sharks desperately need a victory to get their play-off charge back on the rails. They’ve lost to two of the tournament’s weakest sides, the Reds and Cheetahs. Another defeat against opponents they must realistically expect to take five points off would be catastrophic for their campaign.
Bashford said their bye came at the perfect time as the players were observably exhausted and jaded. He was confident the week’s rest would have galvanised them for the decisive clash against opponents he said were fairly unpredictable.
‘I’m not sure how they’ll look to play against us,’ he said of the Highlanders. ‘They’ve mixed it up so far, playing expansively against some sides and more directly against others.
‘They’ve got a good pack who dominated the Bulls when they met earlier in the tournament. If they play anywhere near as well as that they’ll be very difficult to beat. If we can stop their momentum there it’ll nullify a backline with some dangerous players like Israel Dagg and Fetu’u Vainikolo.
‘If they get quick service from the rucks and set phases it’ll be a long day. We want to blunt them there.’
By Ryan Vrede