WHILE the Stormers and Bulls will be determined to retain their comfortable log positions in the penultimate round of Super Rugby pool matches this weekend, the Sharks face the daunting task of fighting for survival, writes Zeena Isaacs.
In the big match-ups, the Sharks host the Bulls in Durban tonight and the Stormers go up against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein tomorrow.
While a victory for the Stormers will keep them in pole position to finish the pool stages at the top of the domestic conference and secure the second spot on the log for a home semifinal, a Bulls win will keep alive their hopes of a home quarterfinal in two weeks.
A defeat for the Sharks, meanwhile, will in all likelihood knock them out of the play-off race.
However, should the Cheetahs create an upset and the Bulls beat the Sharks, the Pretoria-based side could compete for the top spot in the domestic conference.
With the Bulls coming off a morale-boosting win against the Cheetahs, and the Sharks fresh off a four-week break, the visitors will enter tonight's clash as favourites. But the Sharks have proved that they are at their best when their backs are against the wall.
With their packs rated among the best in the competition, Sharks coach John Plumtree and the Bulls's Frans Ludeke expect a fierce forward battle. But the Bulls will also keep a close eye on Bok centre Frans Steyn with his dangerous runs and long-range drop goals.
"I've been very impressed with the Bulls pack," Plumtree said. "They've been excellent with their driving line-out, they've been clinical, and winning ball is not really a problem for them. They strangle the life out of you, so we'll have to turn that around somehow."
Said Ludeke: "The forwards always have a good go, so we know what to expect in terms of the physicality. But we need to be disciplined and accurate in our execution throughout the game."
Stormers forwards coach Matthew Proudfoot said protecting their ball at the breakdowns and gaining ascendancy in the set pieces would be vital.
In other games, the Chiefs host the Crusaders in Hamilton and the Reds meet the Highlanders in Brisbane today. Tomorrow the Lions meet the Rebels in Johannesburg, the Blues take on the Force in Auckland and the Waratahs line up against the Brumbies in Sydney.