The Hurricanes host the Sharks in a Super Rugby quarter-final match at the Westpac Stadium in Wellington on Saturday with a place in the last four up for grabs.
The Wellington-based outfit finished the regular season in spectacular fashion as they did their bit in defeating the Crusaders 35-10 in Christchurch before the Highlanders beat the Chiefs in Dunedin. That meant the Hurricanes won the New Zealand Conference for the second year in a row and finished top of the combined table with 53 points which included 11 wins and four defeats from their 15 games played throughout the campaign.
The Sharks on the other hand secured the last remaining wild-card qualification spot in the South African group with a 40-29 victory over the Sunwolves in Durban last Friday. The Durban based outfit finished the regular Super Rugby season in eighth place on the combined table with 43 points from 15 games which includes nine wins coupled with five defeats and one draw.
Meanwhile, Sharks fly-half Patrick Lambie has still not recovered from the concussion he sustained while playing for the Springboks against Ireland in the June internationals and he will not be part of the squad to face the Hurricanes on Saturday.
Lambie's leadership abilities and tactical kicking will be missed on Saturday and it is now up to young fly-half Garth April to rectify the errors which have been blighting his game of late and show the same sort of composure which he did when he contributed 15 points off the boot in a 15-14 victory over the Highlanders in Dunedin earlier during the season.
The Hurricanes will start this clash as favourites, however it is worth noting that their last defeat in the regular season came against the Sharks and they will be wary of their opponents on Saturday.
Hurricanes scrum-half TJ Perenara recalled what went wrong the last time his team played the Sharks.
"They counter-attack pretty well, they put us under pressure and we made a few errors," Perenara told Stuff.
"I guess they lived off a lot of things we did poorly and they put us in positions where we made errors. We've got to take ownership of our skillset and make sure we don't give them those sort of opportunities."
Turning our attention towards the game, the battle at the breakdown should be an even contest with the Hurricanes recording a 95% success rate at the ruck while the Sharks record sits at 93%.
The lineout look to be an even contest with the Hurricanes currently holding an 87% success rate at the set-piece compared to 85% of the Sharks.
The Hurricanes will look to put the pressure on at scrum-time as they have a 95% success rate while the Sharks have managed an 89% efficiency rate in this area of the game.
The last time the teams met: The Sharks returned from their tour of New Zealand in spectacular fashion as they put in a masterclass defensive effort in the first half which saw both teams go into the break tied up at 8-8. The Sharks dominated the physical aspects of the game and in particular the set-piece before their relentless pressure on defence paid dividends in the second half as they managed to turn their defence into attack with three second half tries on their way to a 32-15 victory over the Hurricanes.
Sharks winger JP Pietersen stole the show during this clash as he grabbed a double while scrum-half Michael Claassens and number eight Daniel du Preez also managed to cross the whitewash. Fly-half Garth April contributed seven points of the boot with two conversions and one penalty while Patrick Lambie also contributed five points with one conversion and one penalty. For the Hurricanes, prop Reg Goodes and full-back James Marshall both dotted down while Marshall converted a try and fly-half Beauden Barrett chipped in with a successful penalty kick at poles in the first half.
Players to watch: The Hurricanes have a number of exciting players to keep an eye on both in the forwards and the backs. The half-back combination of fly-half Beauden Barrett and scrum-half TJ Perenara is causing opposition teams plenty of problems with their willingness to attack the line and their ability to send their team into space with quick service and accurate distribution skills. Barrett has scored seven tries throughout the season which leaves him as the Hurricanes top try scorer while Perenara has managed to dot down on six occasions. The forwards are not short of speed and skill either with the likes of All Blacks flanker Ardie Savea who has added plenty of athleticism in the back-row and has contributed with 165 tackles and five tries throughout the campaign.
As for the Sharks they will look to full-back Willie le Roux and centre Paul Jordaan to provide them with that much needed X-factor on attack. Le Roux is a tricky player to defend against as he often comes into the line as first receiver and varies his play well with the offload in the tackle as well as his famous chip kick which he often gathers and manages to dot down for a five pointer. In the forwards, number eight Philip van der Walt has impressed with his powerful ball carrying abilities throughout the season while Keegan Daniel is a skilful loose forward who combines well in linking forwards and backs.
Team news: Hurricanes head coach Chris Boyd has made three changes to his starting line-up for this clash. There is one change in the backs as Matt Proctor returns from injury and slots straight back into the run on team at centre. Jason Woodward moves to the left wing and Julian Savea drops to the bench.
There are two changes in the front-row. Loosehead prop Loni Uhila replaces the injured Reggie Goodes while tighthead prop Ben May will start ahead of Chris Eves who finds himself as part of the reserves for this weekend’s game.
Meanwhile, the Sharks have made wholesale changes to their starting XV for this Super Rugby quarter-final matchup with the Hurricanes. Full-back Willie le Roux, centre Paul Jordaan and flanker Jean-Luc du Preez all return to the starting team after being out injured for the past few weeks. JP Pietersen returns to the wing while Odwa Ndungane moves to the replacements bench and Michael Claasens replaces Stefan Ungerer at scrum-half.
In the forwards, Jean-Luc du Preez is preferred to Tera Mtembu at flank and Stefan Lewies replaces Ruan Botha at lock. The final changes sees captain Tendai Mtawarira come into the team in place of Thomas du Toit who drops to the bench.
Form: The Hurricanes come into this game as arguably the form team in this year’s Super Rugby tournament after finishing top of the New Zealand conference courtesy of an impressive 35-10 victory over the Crusaders in Christchurch last weekend. The Wellington based outfit have recorded back to back victories over the Reds, Highlanders, Blues, Waratahs and Crusaders since they last tasted defeat against the Sharks in May and they look to be heading into the knockout phase of the competition with plenty of confidence.
The Sharks on the other hand secured their place in the quarter-finals with a 40-29 victory over the Sunwolves in Durban last Friday. The Sharks head into the last eight of the competition having won three of their last four games, however all those victories came against the likes of the Kings, Cheetahs and the Sunwolves who all finished the season in the bottom half of the table while their most recent clash against a team who will be involved in this weekend’s play-off matches ended in a 37-10 defeat against the Lions in the first week of July.
Prediction: It is knockout rugby and it just requires one big performance from either team to send them through to the next round. Past results count for little in these situations and both teams have the quality to beat any side in Super Rugby on their day, another factor to take into account is that the Sharks are known to be good travellers, they knocked over the Highlanders in Dunedin earlier during the season and they will fancy their chances of doing the double over the Hurricanes, however if you take into account current form and preparation then it is the home team that should come out on top. Hurricanes to beat the Sharks by ten points.
2016: Sharks won 32-15 in Durban
2015: Hurricanes won 32-24 in Wellington
2014: Sharks won 27-9 in Durban
2012: Hurricanes won 42-18 in Wellington
2011: Sharks won 40-24 in Durban
2010: Sharks won 29-26 in Wellington
2009: Sharks won 33-17 in Durban
2008: Draw, 13-13 in Wellington
Hurricanes: 15 James Marshall, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Matt Proctor, 12 Willis Halaholo, 11 Jason Woodward, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Victor Vito, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Brad Shields, 5 Michael Fatialofa, 4 Vaea Fifita, 3 Ben May, 2 Dane Coles (c), 1 Loni Uhila
Replacements: 16 Ricky Riccitelli, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Mike Kainga, 19 Mark Abbott, 20 Callum Gibbins, 21 Jamison Gibson-Park, 22 Vince Aso, 23 Julian Savea
Sharks: 15 Willie le Roux, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Paul Jordaan, 12 Andre Esterhuizen, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Garth April, 9 Michael Claasens, 8 Philip van der Walt, 7 Jean-luc du Preez, 6 Keegan Daniel, 5 Stefan Lewies, 4 Etienne Oosthuizen, 3 Coenie Oosthuizen, 2 Franco Marais, 1 Tendai Mtawarira
Replacements: 16 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 17 Dale Chadwick, 18 Thomas du Toit, 19 Hyron Andrews, 20 Tera Mtembu, 21 Stefan Ungerer, 22 Curwin Bosch, 23 Odwa Ndungane
Date: Saturday, July 23
Venue: Westpac Stadium, Wellington
Kick-off: 19:35 local (07:35 GMT)
Referee: Glen Jackson
Assistant Referees: Nick Briant, Paul Williams
TMO: Glenn Newman