No European team has so far won on South African soil during this inaugural URC season, with Munster having come closest in a 23-21 defeat by the Lions in Johannesburg last week. But the Lions are the lowest-placed of South Africa’s four sides, while the Sharks are the highest and have won their last four matches with bonus points.
Blair has been able to recall seven Scotland players to the ranks after their Six Nations commitments, including Hamish Watson at openside and Blair Kinghorn at stand-off, and their return will provide a significant boost to morale. But the home team have some formidable internationals in their ranks too, including the Springboks’ World Cup-winning captain Siya Kolisi, his fellow-forwards Ox Nche and Bongi Mbonambi, and winger Makazole Mapimpi.
“It’s a huge challenge - and we’ve talked about that challenge all week,” Blair said yesterday after naming his matchday 23. “It will take something special to be the first to win in South Africa this year, but we’re under no illusion about the task ahead as Sharks are a quality side, with a number of Springboks in their ranks.
“We’re very aware that it’s very different conditions to what we’ve had to play in so far this season, and likewise when the South African teams came to us you saw how they struggled a bit. We’re really focusing on the character we need to show in unfamiliar surroundings and conditions.”
Centre Mark Bennett will captain the visitors, while James Lang, Ben Vellacott, Magnus Bradbury and Jamie Hodgson are the other Scotland caps who are back in the capital club’s line-up. Perhaps the most fascinating selection, however, is in the back three, where a short-term injury to full-back Henry Immelman has seen Blair move Emiliano Boffelli to the last line of defence and bring Freddie Owsley in on the wing for just his second appearance.
Owsley had an outstanding debut earlier this year against Brive, scoring two outstanding tries in a 66-3 demolition of the French giants. The former track star is unlikely to find the Sharks defence quite so sluggish today, but may well cause problems with a turn of speed that once saw him become British Under-20s champion over 400 metres.
“Freddie had an excellent game against Brive,” Blair added. “But our back three have done really well, so he’ll have been frustrated not to have his opportunity. But this is a great one for him, coming up against a strong Sharks team.”
Those four five-point wins on the bounce have taken the Sharks up to sixth place in the table with a game in hand on all of the teams ahead of them, and they can go above Edinburgh into fifth if they keep up their winning run today. “They have a 6-2 bench in favour of the forwards and they have a pretty impressive forward pack as it is,” Blair added. “We expect them to come at us hard in that area.
“They have been very good over the past month or so. We are aware it will be a really good test for us.”
Cell C Sharks (v Edinburgh at King’s Park, Durban, today [Sat] 3.05pm): A Volmink; W Kok, B Tapuia, M Louw, M Mapimpi; C Bosch, G Williams; O Nche, B Mbonambi, T du Toit, G Grobler, R Hugo, S Kolisi (captain), H Venter, S Notshe. Substitutes: K van Vuuren, N Mchunu, K Mchunu, L Roets, P Buthelezi, J Venter, J Hendrikse, B Chamberlain.
Edinburgh: E Boffelli; R Moyano, M Bennett (captain), J Lang, F Owsley; B Kinghorn, B Vellacott; B Venter, D Cherry, L Atalifo, P Phillips, J Hodgson, M Bradbury, H Watson, B Muncaster. Substitutes: A McBurney, H Courtney, L de Bruin, G Young, C Boyle, C Shiel, J van der Walt, C Dean.