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Stephen Nell is a rugby writer based in Cape Town and works primarily for the Die Burger newspaper. He has been contributing to ESPNscrum since 2005.
Stage set for Super 14 finale
Stephen Nell
May 17, 2007

"There could be a slight twist in the tale in the sense that the country's leading Springboks will be slugging away at one another relentlessly with the first test against England in Bloemfontein just around the corner." Stephen Nell reports

Sharks coach Dick Muir said recently that South Africa will be a country to look out for at this year's World Cup in France.

That sentiment gained credence last week as New Zealand's finest in the shape of the Blues and the Crusaders were swept away, setting the stage for a first ever South African winner in the Super 14.

The Sharks and Bulls will do battle for that crown at the Absa Stadium in Durban on Saturday and the new-found confidence in South African rugby can only grow.

There could be a slight twist in the tale in the sense that the country's leading Springboks will be slugging away at one another relentlessly with the first test against England in Bloemfontein just around the corner. England will be smiling.

When the sides met in a league match on February 3, the Sharks won 17-3. The against-the-odds victory announced the Sharks as a major force.

However, after a slow start the Bulls have found their stride, with an incredible 92-3 victory over the Reds securing them a home semi-final at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria, where the Crusaders, with their top All Blacks, were well beaten.

All indications are that Saturday's match will play itself out like an international, with the boots of Sharks fullback Percy Montgomery and Bulls flyhalf Derick Hougaard keeping the scoreboard ticking over.

The sides measure up extremely well up front. Both packs are very bulky, though not short of athletes.

The Bulls have been boosted this week by the return to their starting line-up of aggressive Springbok lock Bakkies Botha and top scrumhalf Fourie du Preez.

The latter was South Africa's player of the year in 2006 and has also been exceptional this season. It will make the challenge that much tougher for the Sharks.

Muir's side does, however, have home advantage and that will be crucial. The Bulls are a relentless force, but lose a gear when they're not operating in their comfort zone.

It will also be an emotional day for veteran flank AJ Venter, who will in all likelihood be finishing up with the Sharks and only has Springbok ambitions left to fulfil before hanging up his boots.

The only winner one can call prior to the match is that of South African rugby. It's rife with politics and in-fighting, but goodness do they have talent.

Saturday's final is what world rugby needs - a spectacle to sow just a little more uncertainty in what has been over-confident Kiwi minds ahead of this year's World Cup.

HOW THEY LINE UP

Bulls: Johan Roets, Akona Ndungane, JP Nel, Wynand Olivier, Bryan Habana, Derick Hougaard, Fourie du Preez, Pierre Spies, Wikus van Heerden, Pedrie Wannenburg, Victor Matfield (capt), Bakkies Botha, Rayno Gerber, Gary Botha, Gurthro Steenkamp. Substitutes: Jaco Engels, Danie Thiart, Danie Rossouw, Derick Kuun, Heini Adams, Morne Steyn, Jaco van der Westhuyzen.

Sharks (possible): Percy Montgomery, Francois Steyn, Waylon Murray, Bradley Barritt, JP Pietersen, Butch James, Ruan Pienaar, Ryan Kankowski, AJ Venter, Jacques Botes, Johann Muller, Johan Ackermann, BJ Botha, John Smit (capt), Deon Carstens. Substitutes: Bismarck du Plessis, Tendai Mtawarira, Albert van den Berg, Warren Britz, Bob Skinstad, Rory Kockott, Adrian Jacobs.


KEY MEN

Sharks

Percy Montgomery (fullback): He provides a steady head among a host of talented, yet young outside backs. His steady boot is also worth its weight in gold.

AJ Venter (flank): The Super14 will more than likely be AJ Venter?s last hurrah and it?s a fitting way to bow out for a great servant of South African rugby at regional level. There have been hints of a new contract offer for next year, but surely there will be nothing left to achieve if the Sharks are triumphant.

BJ Botha (tighthead prop): In the meeting between the sides earlier this year, the Sharks actually managed to turn the screws up front. If they manage to do so again, Botha will no doubt play a key role. His showdown in the set scrums with fellow Springbok Gurthro Steenkamp will be interesting.

Bulls

Victor Matfield (lock): Without a doubt the finest lineout forward in the world and as such the Bulls will be looking to him to secure their ball and poach some of the Sharks?. Extremely mobile across the park and highly skilled.

Derick Hougaard (flyhalf): His unerring boot was responsible for all 27 points in the semifinal win over the Crusaders. His all-round game has come on in leaps and bounds this year. Mysteriously overlooked for the Springbok training squad.

Bryan Habana (left wing): Devastating pace and opportunism are the hallmarks of his game. Will score if he gets a sniff of the try-line.

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