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Super Rugby preview: Sharks host Highlanders at Kings Park for semi-final berth
The Highlanders travel to Kings Park on Saturday to face the Sharks with a place in the Super Rugby semi-finals at stake.
Jamie Joseph’s Otago-based franchise limped into the knock-out stages, winning just one of their final five regular season matches after a blistering start to the campaign.
In the end, eight wins and as many defeats was enough to see the Highlanders scrape their way into the playoffs, completing a trio of New Zealand sides in the top six having finished behind the Crusaders and Chiefs in their regional conference.
The Sharks meanwhile were denied an automatic passage to the semi-finals by Crusaders’ superior points difference, with Todd Blackadder’s men clinching second spot with a bonus-point win over the Highlanders in the final round of regular season action.
Matt Todd scored twice while Nemani Nadolo and Corey Flynn also crossed to give the Crusaders a 34-8 triumph and a home semi-final, with a late Richard Buckman try the lone consolation for the Highlanders.
Jake White’s Sharks enter the qualifying finals on a high having beaten South African conference rivals 34-10, with tries from Paul Jordaan, Sibusiso Sithole and Stefan Ungerer sealing third place for the Durban-based franchise.
The lone meeting between the sides came back in April when the Sharks met an in-form Highlanders side that extended their winning run to three matches with a 34-18 bonus-pointy win at Kings Park.
Sharks director of rugby White will hope the return of Springbok fly-half Pat Lambie ahead of the crunch clash will boost their chances.
The 23-year-old returns to the bench after four months out with a torn biceps injury and takes the place of Fred Zeilinga, with Frans Steyn retaining the No 10 jersey.
Steyn directs an unchanged backline while the forward pack is also the same, with White saying that losing to the Highlanders earlier in the season is possibly a positive to his side's mindset going into the qualifier game.
"In a lot of ways, it's probably a good thing for us, a boost that they beat us,” he claimed. “Had we beaten them comfortably perhaps we would have gone into this game thinking it was a fait accompli. In a lot of ways we get to have another crack at them.
"There is no doubt this is a team that can score tries, they have the players. When they are on song, they can perform - they beat some big teams this year. But, in saying that, the nice thing we have in our favour is that we lost to them.
"I know I don't have to talk much this week. The players will know it's not just going to happen. I think in a lot of ways, we were on a high in that pool game back in April, about to tour, and we ended up losing that game. We'll be a lot more focussed this week."
Meanwhile, All Black flyer Ben Smith returns to action as the Highlanders prepare to tackle the South African Conference champions.
Smith returns after missing last week's match against the Crusaders with a leg infection suffered a week earlier in Sydney, while Lima Sopoaga has been recalled at fly-half and will be partnering with centre Phil Burleigh.
There are also two changes to the forward pack with Ged Robinson and Jarrad Hoeata both handed starts at hooker and second row respectively.
Sharks: 15 Marais, 14 Sithole, 13 Pietersen, 12 Jordaan, 11 Mvovo, 10 Steyn, 9 Reinach; 1 Du Toit, 2 B du Plessis (capt), 3 J du Plessis, 4 Bresler, 5 Lewies, 6 Coetzee, 7 Alberts, 8 Kankowski
Replacements: 16 Cooper, 17 Chadwick, 18 Adriaanse, 19 Oosthuizen, 20 Deysel, 21 McLeod, 22 Lambie, 23 Chavhanga
Highlanders: 15 Smith, 14 Buckman , 13 Fekitoa, 12 Burleigh, 11 Osborne, 10 Sopoaga, 9 Smith; 1 Hames, 2 Robinson, 3 King, 4 Hoeata, 5 Wheeler, 6 Dixon, 7 Christie, 8 Manu
Replacements: 16 Coltman, 17 Diaz, 18 Koen, 19 Bekhuis, 20 Franklin, 21 Tanaka, 22 Renata, 23 Evans
Don't miss any of the action from Kings Park as the Sharks take on the Highlanders live on Sky Sports 4 from 4pm
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