Sharks sharpen teeth to welcome Highlanders
The Highlanders look likely to face a seriously strengthened Sharks side in their Super Rugby playoff in Durban with Pat Lambie and Tendai "Beast" Mtawarira heading a cast of returning stars for the South Africans.
Impressive halfback Cobus Reinach is also set to start after missing last week's win over the Stormers as a precaution while the versatile JP Pietersen is also expected to be confirmed fit despite leaving the field after a clash of heads in Cape Town.
But it will be the looming presence of Lambie that signals the most danger for the Highlanders in the do-or-die clash in Durban on Sunday morning (NZ time).
The talented backline utility has missed the later stages of the Sharks' campaign with an injured bicep.
In his absence the Sharks attack has spluttered and coach Jake White won't hesitate to immediately inject Lambie into his side if he's confident he is fully fit.
"Patrick has been training with us for the past couple of weeks and he is an important member of the squad and will expect to play if he is passed fit to do so," White said as South African media focused on the Sharks, their country's only hope in the six-team playoffs.
"You might say it would be a risk to bring him straight back in, but he has a knack of coming back cold and then being named man of the match. You will recall that he did that in a Currie Cup final a couple of years ago. Frans (Steyn) was good tonight, S'bura (Sithole) was fantastic, so it is not a train smash if Lambie isn't ready, but it will be a big boost for us if he is.
"The Highlanders haven't played Lima Sopoaga, who has been their first choice flyhalf, in the last few matches, so they are probably facing the same dilemma as we do. Do they play the guy who played last week, or do they bring their first choice back? Pat has been training and means a lot to the group."
Springboks prop Mtawarira has been struggling with a neck injury since the June test window.
The Sharks have used his absence to develop their depth in an area so important to their muscular game. Thomas du Toit, 19, has stepped into the loosehead role with ease. White believes there have been gains in his decision to rest some of his key players over the past few weeks with an eye to having them firing for the playoffs.
"The senior players were very upset with me when I told them they weren't starting, but you have to put that decision into the correct context," said White.
"We went overseas for four weeks and those guys played in every game, and then we came back and played a tough game against the Stormers, and they played again. They then played four consecutive weeks in the international window, so I just felt that I had to make a big call or it might come back to bite me later on.
"That was my gut feeling. Every guy in the squad is desperate to win the competition. The momentum we get going into the playoffs ... had those guys played last week we might now be sitting with a doom and gloom atmosphere as we head into the playoffs."