If you are looking for a dark horse that could possibly pull off a surprise in this year’s Vodacom Super Rugby, the Cell C Sharks might well be the franchise to put your money on as a good outside bet.
Although the bubble was burst by Western Province in the closing stages of the Currie Cup season, the Sharks did start gaining confidence and making good progress in the domestic competition in 2017, and coach Robert du Preez’s three year plan is starting to take shape with the creation of some impressive depth.
Much will hinge for the Sharks on whether they can carry their strong pre-season form into a sequence of three games on South African soil that could be crucial to their chances of challenging for a favourable draw in the knock-out phases. The Sharks management won’t forget easily that their lowly eighth placed finish last year meant they had to travel to Johannesburg for their quarterfinal.
The Sharks came tantalisingly close to upsetting the Lions in their own backyard, with only a last gasp Ruan Combrinck penalty edging the Lions, who finished top of the log, into the semifinal. Had the Sharks won they would have had to travel to New Zealand, and it would have been unlikely they could have won the competition the hard way, but with a bit of luck they can secure home ground advantage in the play-offs in 2018.
To do that a win in the appetising derby against the Lions at Emirates Airlines Park that starts their competitive season will be crucial. The Sharks then face the Waratahs at home, and they boast a decent recent Kings Park record against the Sydney team. Then they face the Sunwolves before heading overseas for their first tour game in Canberra.
They do face a tough four match tour, but if they can hit the road with three wins under the belt it would be a massive boost for their confidence. Remember, of all the South African franchises, it is the Sharks who have traditionally been the best travellers, and they managed to beat the Highlanders on their last trip to New Zealand in 2016 before returning home to thrash the Hurricanes, who went on to win the competition that year.
Mention of the New Zealand teams though does introduce one potential obstacle to Sharks success. They didn’t play Kiwi sides last year, and that could require some readjustment. The Sharks management though are confident that they have done what is necessary to compete – they have made a dramatic improvement in the team’s conditioning and they’ve also made a big attempt to upskill the players.
The Currie Cup final defeat to WP at Kings Park last October was a wake-up call to the Sharks in more ways than one. Firstly, it would have been an eye-opener to them that they played a home final in front of just a half full stadium. That was an indication that while they had enjoyed a successful regular season, they still weren’t captivating their audience by playing spell-binding, attacking rugby.
Secondly, two WP wins in Durban in the space of a fortnight – Province also played their last league game in Durban – sent the Sharks the message that they had to rely on more than percentage rugby if they wanted to win silverware. The telling words came from opposition coach John Dobson after the final. He said that once his team, who enjoyed forward dominance throughout, had got ahead they knew all they had to do was kick the ball into Sharks territory and they would win. That was because they didn’t believe the Sharks had the attacking wherewithal to hurt them.
The result of that is that coach Du Preez has made a dramatic change to the Sharks’ training methods in the pre-season. Out the window has gone the old military drill style form of fitness training. This year the Sharks have done everything with the ball, and the intention is that it will help equip the players with the skills to be a more dangerous attacking force as a team.
The Sharks are certainly well equipped to play attacking rugby. Makazole Mapimpi, the 27 year old wing that was unearthed 18 months ago by Kings coach Deon Davids at Border, has had a dramatic impact on the teams he has played in – the Kings and the Cheetahs – with his pace and ability to finish off. Sbusiso Nkosi was one of the finds of last season on the wing for the Sharks, Kobus van Wyk is one of those rarities in South Africa in that he is a big wing (so is Nkosi by the way), and the Sharks have also managed to recruit the pacey former Stormers flyer Leolin Zas.
The latter suffered a horrible injury at the start of last year and it was because they fear that he will never regain his blistering pace again that WP let him go, but Zas will add depth out wide, and with Lukhanyo Am sure to challenge for a starting place in the Springbok team at outside centre if he remains fit, the Sharks look well equipped at the back.
Van Wyk can play outside centre, the position he played his junior rugby, should he be required to, and there is also depth at inside centre, where Andre Esterhuizen will be challenged by the improving and rapidly maturing Jeremy Nel as well as Marius Louw, who was one of the finds from the ranks of club rugby during the 2017 Currie Cup.
Flyhalf and fullback are going to be interesting areas of debate. Robert du Preez has returned from Cape Town as a better player. Robbie Fleck got the lanky former Kearsney College pupil to play much closer to the gainline and be far more direct in his last seasons with WP/Stormers, and he has the playing style to elicit memories of the man his father was paired up with in the Natal team of the 1990s, Henry Honiball.
While Du Preez is fit Curwin Bosch, the man Du Preez showed up quite badly in those two Kings Park clashes between WP and the Sharks last October, will probably have to make do with challenging Lwazi Mvovo for a place at fullback. Ditto for Garth April, who has played both No 10 and No 15 for the Sharks in the past.
“The good thing is that both Garth and Curwin are a year older now and that means they are a year more experienced,” was their coach’s take on what he saw as solid contributions from the pair in the pre-season.
You get the sense though that Du Preez would rather his son stays fit and given the style of rugby the Sharks intend playing, he would be right to do so.
At scrumhalf the depth provided by the experience of the currently injured Louis Schreuder and the well travelled Michael Claassens is added to by the impressive early season form of Cameron Wright. The latter is back from a stint in France.
Where the Sharks may have lost something since last year is at lock. Ettienne Oosthuizen is now playing overseas, and while he did at times come across as a liability with his tendency to give away crucial penalties, the depth he offered to the second row with his ability to be rotated with Ruan Botha and Stephan Lewies was valuable.
Elsewhere in the forwards though the Sharks have an embarrassment of riches and they will be eager to prove in the early season that last year’s step backwards against what was effectively a second-string Province pack was just an aberration.
CELL C SHARKS 2018 FIXTURES
Lions v Sharks (Johannesburg, 17 February)
Sharks v Waratahs (Durban, 3 March)
Sharks v Sunwolves (Durban, 10 March)
Brumbies v Sharks (Canberra, 17 March)
Rebels v Sharks (Melbourne, 23 March)
Blues v Sharks (Auckland, 31 March)
Hurricanes v Sharks (Wellington, 6 April)
Sharks v Bulls (Durban, 14 April)
Sharks v Stormers (Durban, 21 April)
Sharks v Highlanders (Durban, 5 May)
Bulls v Sharks (Pretoria, 12 May)
Sharks v Chiefs (Durban, 19 May)
Jaguares v Sharks (Buenos Aires, 25 May)
Sharks v Lions (Durban, 30 June)
Stormers v Sharks (Cape Town, 7 July)
Sharks v Jaguares (Durban, 14 July)
Forwards: Akker van der Merwe, Coenie Oosthuizen, Chiliboy Ralepelle Daniel du Preez, Franco Marais, Gideon Koegelenberg, Hyron Andrews, Jacques Vermeulen, Jean Droste, Jean-Luc du Preez, John-Hubert Meyer, Juan Schoeman, Keegan Daniel, Kerron van Vuuren, Khuta Mchunu, Lubabalo Mtembu, Mzamo Majola, Philip van der Walt, Ross Geldenhuys, Ruan Botha (captain), Beast Mtawarira, Thomas du Toit, Tyler Paul, Wian Vosloo.
Backs: Andre Esterhuizen, Cameron Wright, Courtney Winnaar, Curwin Bosch, Garth April, Grant Williams, Jeremy Ward, Johan Deysel, Kobus van Wyk, Leolin Zas, Louis Schreuder, Lukhanyo Am, Lwazi Mvovo, Makazole Mapimpi, Marius Louw, Michael Claasens, Rhyno Smith, Robert du Preez, Sbusiso Nkosi, Tristan Blewett.