Cell C Sharks v Connacht, Kings Park, Durban, Saturday , 3.05 Irish time – Live on TG4 and Premier Sports
The timing of Connacht’s first visit to Durban will ensure the Cell C Sharks are in no mood to be accommodating with the final eight places up for grabs in this season’s United Rugby Championship.
In this penultimate round, all eyes are on qualification, and the Sharks hold all those cards in this contest – a bonus-point win would see them through, and still with a chance of making the playoffs – sitting just a point behind South African rivals DHL Stormers.
Yet Connacht headed to Durban this week hugely buoyed by their 33-30 win over the Emirates Lions last weekend, and armed with hope of becoming becoming the first team to win against all four South African teams.
It is that goal that continues to provide Andy Friend’s side with motivation, while also allowing the Connacht boss to look ahead to next season and build for the future.
“Beating all four South African teams would be a tremendous achievement, but we’re fully aware we’ve a significant task ahead of us,” says Friend.
“The Sharks have named a side full of Springbok internationals, and will have a large and passionate fan base behind them.
“That said, the group has taken huge confidence from their win in Johannesburg and the atmosphere around the camp all week has been really positive.”
In a game that will mark scrumhalf Caolin Blade's 150th cap for Connacht, Friend has made six changes from last weekend's side, with Connacht's Lions player Bundee Aki missing out, having suffered bumps and bruises in the win over the Lions. He is replaced by Tom Farrell, in one of two changes in the backs as Conor Fitzgerald takes over from Jack Carty in the No 10 jersey in only his third start this season.
A full recovered Finlay Bealham replaces Jack Aungier, and joins Denis Buckley and Dave Heffernan in what is Connacht's most experienced frontrow, while last week's secondrow bench, Gavin Thornbury and Leva Fifita, are named in the starting XV. Conor Oliver comes in for Paul Boyle, who suffered a toe injury last weekend, joining Cian Prendergast and Jarrad Butler, who captains the side.
The Sharks, with ambitions to make the playoffs, have named an unchanged side from that which defeated a much-changed Leinster side last weekend. It includes Sprinkbok captain Siyi Kolisi, speedster Makazole Mapimpi, and Sevens exponent Werner Kole.
Connacht's defence will certainly need to be on its toes for the Sharks' back three; similarly up front Sharks' power game will present a big challenge. However, Connacht will be looking to exploit any weakness, and Prendergast, who is fast becoming the poacher-in-chief, could be a real menace, while Mack Hansen, although remaining at fullback, possesses the skills to exploit any gaps when running from deep.
Both sides have their own ambitions – the Sharks to qualify for the top four; Connacht to produce a first clean sweep over South African sides.
The South African’s reward is more tangible – and that could make all the difference.
CELL C SHARKS: A Fassi; W Kok, B Tapuai, M Louw, M Mapimpi; C Bosch, J Hendrikse; O Nche, B Mbonambi, T du Toit (capt); LR Roets, G Gobler; S Kolisi, H Venter, P Buthelezi.
Replacements: K van Vuuren, N Mchunu, R Hugo, J Labuschagne, S Notshe, G Williams, B Chamberlain.
CONNACHT: M Hansen; J Porch, T Farrell, T Daly, A Wootton; C Fitzgerald, C Blade; D Buckley, D Heffernan, F Bealham; G Thornbury, L Fifita; C Prendergast, C Oliver, J Butler (capt).
Replacements: D Tierney-Martin, J Duggan, J Aungier, N Murray, O Dowling, K Marmion, J Carty, T O'Halloran.
Referee: Cwengile Jadezweni (SARU).