BULLS coach Frans Ludeke and his Sharks counterpart John Plumtree are preparing themselves for a clash of Test proportions when their teams meet in Durban in their penultimate Super Rugby game on Friday.
A victory for the Bulls would keep them in fourth place on the log, in line for a home quarterfinal, and could keep them in the race for the top spot in the domestic conference if the Cheetahs create an upset against the Stormers.
That could also be the killer blow for the Sharks' play-off hopes. But a Sharks win will keep them in the running for a play-off place and move them closer to the Bulls on the log ahead of the last round of pool matches next weekend.
Ironically, the Sharks and Bulls went head-to-head for a play-off spot last season and a hard-fought 26-23 win for the Durban-based team saw them advance to the top six. But the Bulls will be desperate to avoid that happening again this year.
Given the high stakes this weekend, Ludeke decided to give Springbok flank Deon Stegmann another week to recover fully from the broken arm he suffered almost two months ago and named an identical squad to the one that thumped the Cheetahs 40-24 last week.
This continuity in selection, combined with the momentum the Bulls gained last week, is expected to give the visitors an edge on Friday.
Plumtree, meanwhile, revealed yesterday that he would select Frans Steyn in the midfield after the Bok back had completed his obligations with French club Racing Metro. That should boost their backline and offer the team the bonus option of long-range penalty kicks and drop goals.
But the bad news for Plumtree was Springboks Willem Alberts (knee) and Pat Lambie (ankle), talented lock Steven Sykes (knee) and centre Paul Jordaan (hamstring) all racing against time to recover from their injuries. Alberts and Sykes, in particular, have already been labelled "doubtful" for this game.
Ludeke admitted yesterday that his team were under no illusions about the challenge ahead and he is hoping they can build on their impressive form in the first 60 minutes against the Cheetahs.
"This will be a Test rugby situation for both sides, so we have to play well," said Ludeke. "Similarly to the Sharks, we are also desperate (to win) . and that is what makes this contest such a special event. It is going to be a huge clash, and in such games it is important to do the basics right and ensure that we are disciplined on the day."
Plumtree agreed: "Motivation comes from within, it's not up to one man. We know we're in finals rugby. In the last two or three seasons it has come down to Sharks-Bulls clashes somehow. This is another crucial game for both sides, because both need the win, so there is no more motivation needed. You're either in or out after this game."
Plumtree admitted that while their loss to the Lions prior to their four-week break made their task in the next two games much harder, he hoped the intense pressure would bring out the best in his team.
Friday's clash will mark milestones in the careers of Bulls hooker Chiliboy Ralepelle and lock Willhelm Steenkamp, as they will earn their 50th caps.
In the Stormers camp, Bok lock Eben Etzebeth (stiff ankle) and prop Brok Harris (broken nose) have been ruled out for the game against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein on Saturday, but fullback Joe Pietersen, wing Bryan Habana, prop Steven Kitshoff and forward Rynhardt Elstadt are expected to be back after missing last week's game.
Zane Kirchner; Akona Ndungane, JJ Engelbrecht, Wynand Olivier, Bjorn Basson; Morné Steyn, Francois Hougaard; Pierre Spies (capt), Jacques Potgieter, Dewald Potgieter; Juandré Kruger, Flip van der Merwe; Werner Kruger, Chiliboy Ralepelle, Dean Greyling. Replacements: Willie Wepener, Frik Kirsten, Wilhelm Steenkamp, CJ Stander, Jano Vermaak, Louis Fouché, Francois Venter.