Wynne Gray 's Opinion

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Wynne Gray: Highlanders know they can tame Sharks

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Shane Christie of the Highlanders looks on during the round 19 Super Rugby match between the Crusaders and the Highlanders. Photo / Getty Images.
Shane Christie of the Highlanders looks on during the round 19 Super Rugby match between the Crusaders and the Highlanders. Photo / Getty Images.

When the Highlanders look for a "How to beat the Sharks" guide, they can roll through the tape of their Anzac Day demo job in Durban.

They creamed the Sharks 34-18 in a result few acknowledged they could deliver in this Super 15. On Sunday, that voyage reaches a sudden-death terminus against the same team in the same South African coastal city.

The April result embarrassed the Sharks and sharpened any complacency before their successful offshore trip. Coach Jake White admitted his boys had been well sorted by the Highlanders.

"It was tough. They bossed at the breakdown, they didn't allow us rhythm, they didn't kick out, they didn't give us any set-piece ball, the handling wasn't good," he said.

Sounds a good plan. It worked so well last time, Jamie Joseph and his coaching cohorts should revive a honed version of those tactics which caused the Sharks to concede four tries for the only time this campaign.

It was some impact from the Highlanders in a season when the Sharks have been the best defensive side, yielding just 22 tries.

That day they were without the huge influence of captain Bismarck du Plessis but the manner of their defeat will have them on edge and the Highlanders optimistic of a repeat.

The Sharks kick more than any other side and turn over the most possession, whereas the Highlanders have Malakai Fekitoa (6 tries), and Ben Smith, Patrick Osborne and Richard Buckman all with 5 tries, who know how to make that count.

They also have Lima Sopoaga who has 166 points compared to the Sharks' top points scorer Francois Steyn, who has picked up 148 points.

The Sharks prefer to work from set-piece in their opponent's zone. Captain du Plessis controls the scrums and delivers to the lineout for Stephan Lewies who's their middle-of-the-lineout target, where he has also taken the most steals in the competition.

Tackle counts show the Sharks make the least of any side, averaging 84 a game, while the Highlanders have the biggest tally averaging 131 a game. That evidence suggests the visitors should test their rivals' lungs and defensive systems if they keep the ball instead of kicking it.

Key men for each side in minutes they have played are Ben and Aaron Smith, Fekitoa, Nasi Manu, Shane Christie and Joe Wheeler for the Highlanders, with the du Plessis brothers, Steyn, Lwazi Mvovo, Lewies and Willem Alberts the backbone of the Sharks.

Aaron Smith and Steyn are pivotal players for their teams, getting the ball more and making the most carries, yet both miss the most tackles. Discipline will also be a crucial part of this match, which will be refereed by Steve Walsh.

The Sharks have scored 29 tries all year and conceded 22, while the Highlanders have touched down 39 times but yielded 52 tries.

In their last two matches, the Highlanders staggered across the finish line into the playoffs after being thumped 44-16 by the Waratahs then 34-8 by the Crusaders.

The Sharks lost 20-27 to the Cheetahs but regrouped last week in Cape Town to blitz the Stormers 34-10.

- NZ Herald

Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

NZ Herald senior rugby writer Wynne Gray has been covering the All Blacks for almost 25 years and has attended more than 230 All Blacks tests live for the Herald.

Read more by Wynne Gray

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