Where: Kings Park Stadium, Durban
When: Saturday, January 6
There is just one match in the URC this weekend, as the Sharks host the Lions in Durban. The Sharks come into this one on the back of an agonizing defeat at the hands of the Stormers last time out, with a 60th-minute Marnie Libbok penalty proving the difference between the two sides in Cape Town. The Sharks had to settle for a losing bonus point in their 16-15 defeat.
The Lions last game in URC action was over a month ago when they thrashed the Dragons 49-24 at Ellis Park. Their six-try performance was their best outing of the season as they put the Welsh region to the sword with a display of clinical, attacking rugby.
The results so far this season mean the Sharks are looking up at every other team in the competition as they are bottom of the log on just eight points. They are performing below their talent level, but it has been a difficult campaign with so many stars taking an extended break after the World Cup.
The Lions are not doing much better than the Sharks, but they are at least in playoff contention at the halfway point of the season. They are in 12th place in the URC standings, with 19 points from their seven games played. This gives them two games in hand on most of the teams around them, and the Lions can move into the playoff spots by winning both of those games in hand. This clash with the Sharks is the first of those matches.
The Sharks may have lost to the Stormers last Saturday, but it was their best showing of the season. They have just one win from their eight URC games so far, so taking the momentum from that defeat and turning it into a win here is vital if they have any hopes of finishing the season in the eight.
They will try to beat the more fluid and slick Lions with the same gameplan they unleashed on the Cape Town side. They will compete hard at the breakdown, looking to slow the ball and create havoc at the ruck. Expect the Sharks to work hard on defense, using their impressive line speed to come up and hit the Lions at source.
The Lions have been a surprise in 2023-24 so far, and their team is just fun to watch. They have the right mix of young, hungry talent and journeymen with a point to prove to keep winning games with a spirit that the Sharks currently would love to have.
They will need to counter the star power of the Sharks with their team ethic, working hard to control the ball and find space to launch their impressive backline with its mix of power and speed.
The Lions are the better-placed team on the log, but there is a feeling that it is time for the Sharks to emerge from their season-long slumber. They were much better than they have been all season last Saturday and the returning Eben Etzebeth will make them much stronger. They will win this and I like them to cover.