Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - They’ll still be reassuringly close to the warm Indian Ocean and the flight won’t take much longer than an hour.
But those small comforts aside, the Sharks will be acutely aware that they’re in “enemy” territory when they play their maiden Super Rugby derby against the Kings in Port Elizabeth on Saturday night (19:10).
Local fervour - if not necessarily deep-rooted optimism about a favourable home-town outcome - will know no bounds after the Kings’ winning start against the Western Force, who then went on to give Loftus a serious scare before succumbing late to the complacent Bulls last weekend.
No wonder Sharks coach John Plumtree has warned of the environment being “pretty patriotic” in the Friendly City as his unbeaten troops square up to the tournament newcomers.
If the Kings could attract a gate of some 32 000 for the less than star-studded Force, there must be a rosy likelihood they will comfortably beat that figure for the visit of juggernaut domestic rivals.
It will also not have escaped Plumtree’s attention that his charges will come up against two Kings players, in influential positions strategically, who have healthy knowledge of the Sharks culture and will not be shy in the lead-up week to pass on tips to team-mates about how to rattle the visitors’ composure.
Seasoned lock Steven Sykes (although fittingly from a Kings point of view born in the Eastern Cape’s Middelburg) was a stalwart of Sharks Currie Cup or Super Rugby squads for the most part between 2005 and 2012.
He was involved in their two losing finals in those competitions last season, starting the Currie Cup showpiece defeat to Western Province as recently as late October and being a substitute for the earlier, heavy loss to the Chiefs in the 2012 Super Rugby final in Hamilton.
So he knows many of the Sharks’ forward systems backwards and may be expected to be a key Kings “unscrambler”, for instance, of the visitors’ lineout plans at Nelson Mandela
Similarly at inside centre, the rugged Andries Strauss - also the rookie franchise’s vice-captain - is extremely well-versed in Sharks backline principles.
Expected to be in a direct clash at No 12 with the Sharks’ own acting captain and no shrinking violet Frans Steyn
, Strauss’s Durban memories will have faded a tad more than Sykes’s, because he has since had a brief return stint with the Cheetahs, although he did manage more than 100 caps in a Sharks jersey across the two major competitions from 2006 to 2010 so could certainly be described as part of the furniture for a significant period.
If this writer’s own trawl through the records is correct, the Sharks have twice before played Super Rugby in Port Elizabeth and three times generally in the Eastern Cape.
All of those trio of appearances came in the period between 1998 and 1999, when the Durban-based outfit were briefly rebranded the “Coastal Sharks” and placed in slightly tenuous alliance - for then-Super 12 purposes - with the more minnow unions down the coastline of EP and Border.
It was not a marriage made in heaven and nor did it last long: only a sprinkling of players from the smaller partners actually made the Sharks squad, and those who did generally felt fairly peripheral.
As for the bigger group of Durban-based stars, they tended to dislike occasional, obligatory trips for “home” matches in PE or East London, feeling that the spirit and atmosphere of Kings Park was simply not emulated there.
I did plenty of lengthy magazine interviews with big-name Sharks players of the time - including such iconic ones as captain Gary Teichmann
, Ollie le Roux, Andre Joubert and Mark Andrews - and although they were obviously more diplomatic on the record, some would reveal off it that such fixtures away from their customary fortress actually did their campaign no favours.
If it is any source of comfort to the current Sharks players, respective PE matches (albeit both at the old Boet Erasmus Stadium, also known as Telkom Park for a while) in 1998 and 1999 were both won despite the camp grumbles: 52-18 against the Chiefs and then 21-16 against the Brumbies.
But in the 1999 season, the Sharks’ semi-final aspirations - they later receded to a seventh-placed finish - took a bad knock when they entertained the Hurricanes in the other Eastern Cape metropolis, East London, in mid-tournament and crashed 34-18 before a reasonably sparse crowd.
If they thought the reception was disappointingly lukewarm even as the “home” team then, imagine how frosty the Sharks will find it now they are the opponents instead.
They really ought to win, and perhaps even well, but for several reasons may find it no stroll in the park ...Teams:Kings:
15 SP Marais, 14 Marcello Sampson, 13 Ronnie Cooke, 12 Andries Strauss, 11 Sergeal Petersen, 10 Demetri Catrakilis, 9 Shaun Venter, 8 Jacques (Vleis) Engelbrecht, 7 Wimpie van der Walt, 6 Cornell du Preez, 5 Darron Nell (captain), 4 Steven Sykes, 3 Kevin Buys, 2 Bandise Maku, 1 Schalk Ferreira
Substitutes: 16 Edgar Marutlulle, 17 Jaco Engels, 18 David Bulbring, 19 Luke Watson, 20 Nicolas Vergallo, 21 George Whitehead, 22 Hadleigh ParkesSharks:
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