Sharks to unleash the Beast on Highlanders
THE Sharks have lacked a spark all season, so the return of Tendai "the Beast" Mtawarira to the front row for their crucial clash against the Highlanders couldn't have come at a better time.
The Durban team, after five losses in nine matches, need to win tomorrow and beyond to maintain their hopes of reaching the play-offs. And the Beast's return is a huge boost to that end.
After months on the sidelines with an ankle injury, the Beast should feature in an all-Springbok front row alongside the Du Plessis brothers, Jannie and Bismarck, if he passes a late fitness test.
From the platform that decorated front row should provide, the Sharks might finally have a launch pad to control the game for long periods and dictate play on their terms.
The feature of their inconsistent showing so far this year has been an inability to put opponents under sustained pressure. When they have scored, they have usually leaked points almost immediately afterwards, which has led to patchy displays.
The addition of Ryan Kankowski to the bench also provides some "X-factor" insurance among the reserves, while starting Paul Jordaan at centre, with JP Pietersen moving to the wing, suggests a more attacking mindset from the Sharks.
The Sharks also have recent history on their side, having won the last five encounters between the teams dating back to 2005.
The Bulls begin their overseas tour against the Melbourne Rebels this morning knowing that anything less than a five-point haul from the match will be considered a poor return.
The Rebels have given some gritty home displays this season, but they don't have the personnel or pedigree to survive against a Bulls side playing even remotely near its full potential.
The return of lock Flip van der Merwe and prop Dean Greyling means that the Bulls pack has no excuses when it comes to laying a foundation for the likes of Francois Hougaard and Bjorn Basson to strike from.
It is the Bulls' first visit to Melbourne and only the fourth by a South African team. In the previous three visits by South African sides the Rebels have lost every time.
The Lions will have to dig deeper than ever just to ensure that tomorrow's clash against the Chiefs in Wellington doesn't turn into a thrashing.
The Chiefs have been in rampant form this season and recently completed a victorious two-match South African tour, where they showed defensive steel rather than flashy attacking play.
It is that new-found defensive quality that marks the Chiefs as serious title contenders. They have great strike power in the form of flyhalf Aaron Cruden, wing Leila Masaga and centre Sonny Bill Williams, but they are mingy on defence too.
For a Lions side that has battled to break rudimentary defences this season, it's unlikely they will unlock the second-best defence in the tournament.
The Cheetahs host the Force in a game the home team should win - if they tighten their defence, which has leaked a tournament-high 274 points this season.