First up, on Friday, will be the high-flying Highlanders... and it may just be the best time to play the men from Otago.
Their red-hot form of earlier in the season appears to have deserted them and they have slipped behind the Chiefs in the New Zealand conference.
Bolstered by the return from suspension and injury of three of their big men – Bismarck du Plessis, JP Pietersen and Stephan Lewies – the Sharks could pull off a minor upset to start their tour on a successful note... and while Frans Steyn won’t be available for the opening game as his suspension still has a week to run, he will be in contention for a place in the side for the following three games.
The Highlanders game is followed by a clash with the enigmatic Hurricanes. On a good day they can beat any side in the tournament and have been probably the best side this season, though they are only fourth on the overall standings. Part of that can be attributed to the fact that they have played two games fewer than the table-topping Chiefs.
What is more remarkable is that the Canes have lost just one match this year, and have a defensive record second only to Australian conference leaders the Brumbies.
A close game is anticipated, with the side giving away the fewest penalties likely to come away with a narrow win and four crucial points.
The New Zealand leg complete, the Sharks then relocate to Sydney to take on the Waratahs.
The defending champions have not been at their best so far, and are currently sixth in the standings. While their pedigree is undoubted, their form has been less than impressive and the Sharks could catch them on the hop with a quality performance. It should again be a close game, with the Sharks’ physicality likely to be a key factor.
The final match of the tour is against the Reds, who have had a dire season. The men from Brisbane have recorded just two wins and have the shakiest defence in the tournament, and should provide the tourists with the ideal way to finish their travelling on a successful note.
With a 27-man squad – 15 forwards and 12 backs – there should be an opportunity for every player to have game time on tour. Young hooker Franco Marais will serve as back-up to Bismarck du Plessis, with Monde Hadebe and Kyle Cooper being given a break.
The outstanding lock of last season, Stephan Lewies, will be making his Super XV season debut after having had operations to his shoulder and knee.
It was only after proving his fitness in recent Vodacom Cup games that he was included in the squad. The other locks are Mouritz Botha, Marco Wentzel and Lubalbalo Mtyanda, and they will need to be on their toes to keep Lewies out of the starting line-up.
Dale Chadwick is the only non-international at prop, but he is likely to find plenty of game time as coach Gary Gold rotates his squad – Jannie du Plessis, Lourens Adriaanse, Matt Stevens and Tendai Mtawarira have international experience to fall back on.
The loose trio combinations will see power in every position of the back row – Willem Alberts, Renaldo Bothma, Marcell Coetzee, Etienne Oosthuizen – but the last-minute withdrawal of Ryan Kankowski, who failed to overcome a knee injury in time, means they are lacking a bit of pace in the loose.
The backs have plenty of pace and power out wide and will need to show good ball retention in the tackle and when it comes to recycling if they want to buy time for their forwards to join in the battle.
Wings Lwazi Mvovo, Sbura Sithole and full-back Odwa Ndungane will expect to see a lot of the ball, with big centres JP Pietersen, Andre Esterhuizen, Waylon Murray and Frans Steyn providing the crash ball option.
The likely starting half-back combination will be Cobus Reinach and Fred Zeilinga, with back-ups being Conrad Hoffmann and Stefan Ungerer.
Gold said: “My selection was based on who is fit and healthy, but the nice thing is that there are a lot of guys who can play in different positions.
“We are looking forward to this tour. Tours are funny things. I’ve seen teams in far worse positions than us fight to get back and we’re not giving up the fight. I believe in this group of guys and I am keen to work with them in adverse times – that’s when you see true warriors come out.
“That’s our challenge: we are down, but we’re not out. Now is the time to stand up and fight back. If we come back in the last six games, we’ll salvage a lot of respect,” he added. – Sunday Tribune
Original source: Sharks face a tough start