Venue: Hollywoodbets Kings Park, Durban
Date: Saturday, February 4
This is a weird, out-of-sequence matchup, but the Sharks will host the Stormers this Saturday in the only URC match to be played at the weekend. This game was rescheduled after the original date was postponed in Week 1, and with the Northern Hemisphere sides all off due to the Six Nations, this made sense as a place to get the match played.
The coastal derby means that the Sharks and Stormers will each have played for 11 consecutive weeks when taking in both URC and European Cup fixtures. Both are having their squad depth tested, but both can throw everything at this, knowing there will be a two-week break before they play next.
This is an important match. The second-placed Stormers are well placed to clinch a home quarter-final over the rest of the season, while the eighth-placed Sharks currently occupy the last finals spot. With at least one game in hand on everyone else – and in some cases, two – the Sharks will be eyeing the seven points they need to climb up the table into fourth and grab a home finals match of their own.
The Sharks have momentum after a big win over Edinburgh in their last URC outing. Their 22-19 was a show of steel late on at a venue where it is incredibly difficult to win, and it was an important one given that the two are currently battling over that final playoff spot.
The Sharks should be strong again here, though it is worth noting that Oc Nche and Thomas du Toit both miss out due to Springbok resting requirements.
The good news for the Stormers is that it looks like fly-half Manie Libbok will be back in contention to start against the Sharks. Libbokk has been out for a couple of weeks after picking up a head knock and landing in the concussion protocols. While he isn’t fully cleared yet, he expects to clear those remaining hurdles in time for the coastal derby.
Stormers will also be boosted by the return from injury of Seabelo Senatla. Senatla – and his explosive pace – gives the Stormers a pure finisher with his combination of electric speed and nose for the try line. They have also drafted in a new lock in Ruben van Heerden – ironically a four-year player for the Sharks – to sure up their second row after a rash of injuries at the position.
Keep an eye on the weather here. The Stormers love throwing the ball around, while the Sharks are generally more practical and pragmatic in how they attack. The Saturday afternoon kickoff means that it is likely to be humid and hot in Durban. That extra moisture on the ball could be a factor with the handling of the Stormers put to the test if they try to play their usual game.
Given the weather – and the fact they are at home with momentum – I will take the Sharks to win. It will be close, so a Stormers’ cover isn’t out of the question.