The Sharks and the Chiefs will keep their options wide open all the way to kick-off on Saturday evening, thus exploiting to the maximum the massive advantage they have of playing the very last match in the 2008 Super 14 before next week’s semifinals.
Mike Greenaway writes in The Mercury that neither Dick Muir nor Ian Foster have named a starting line-up, presumably so that they can jiggle their teams as they see fit, and according to the situation they are in after the other prospective semifinal combatants have fought out mammoth battles in Auckland, Brisbane and Johannesburg.
So while the Sharks are unlikely to field two of their battered stars in tighthead prop B J Botha and centre Frans Steyn – neither looked too comfortable during their fitness assessments at training on Thursday night – they have not been officially ruled out in case the situation warrants their inclusion come 7.10pm Saturday night.
Jannie du Plessis trained in place of Botha, and Bradley Barritt is a ready-made and accomplished replacement for Steyn at No 12. In very good news for the Sharks, lock Johann Muller came through training with no recurrence of his calf problem, and will lead the team.
On the other side of town at Glenwood High School, at least two of the Chiefs’ injured quartet look likely to start – hooker Tom Willis and flyhalf Stephen Donald – while No 8 Sione Lauaki (hamstring) remains “iffy” and wing Sitiveni Sivivatu (ankle) looks out.
It is likely that Lauaki will be pressed into service if results have gone the way of the Chiefs and they have a semifinal spot to play for, otherwise it is unlikely that he and Sivivatu will risk aggravating their injuries when they have probable All Black commitments around the corner.
In all likelihood, the Chiefs will have nothing but pride to play for, but the Sharks should be able to make the most of the luxury of playing last and clinch a place in the play-offs.
Of all the six teams playing for the three available semifinal spots – the Crusaders are home and dry for the first spot – the Sharks are in pole position because they will know exactly what they have to do to qualify, while the teams playing before them are uncertain of what score will be sufficient.
The Sharks themselves have recently been down this corridor of uncertainty with a disastrous consequence. Two years ago they seemed sure of a semifinal spot when they kicked off the final round by hosting the Force on the Friday night. They won 41-25, but could well have scored more points and certainly could have conceded less had they known that the next day at Newlands the Bulls would meet the points differential target of 33 they needed to squeeze past the Sharks into fourth.
Last year the Bulls again showed the inestimable value of playing last when, against the Reds at Loftus, they relentlessly chased down the 70-odd points they needed to finish second on the table.
If the Sharks need a big score to qualify, you might find them tweaking their side, for instance starting mobile lock Stephen Sykes ahead of veteran Johan Ackermann and finding a place somewhere for gamebreaker Steyn.
Whatever circumstances the Sharks find themselves in tomorrow evening at kick-off, you would have to think they have the momentum to carry them into the semifinals.Tweet