Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – An away derby defeat in your opening match
hardly spells “curtains” for the Super Rugby season, but the Sharks will be
mindful, nevertheless, that they need to find winning ways very soon.
The Durban-based franchise were handed arguably the toughest
draw for the first two weeks of the competition in 2012, given the unrivalled
intensity and brutality of all-South African affairs: Bulls at Loftus and then
last season’s premier local outfit the Stormers at an almost certainly heaving
When each team’s itinerary even prior to the playoffs phase
features 16 matches, there are going to be peaks and troughs for all comers
along the gruelling road, but the Sharks will not have lost sight of the
potential perils of going “nought from two” against their big coastal rivals on
Saturday night (19:10 kickoff).
That is because they have their overseas tour not too far
away and an absolutely minimum wish by coach John Plumtree ahead of it, you
would think, would be a 50 percent record: it means his injury-jinxed troops
must aim for two wins from their next three outings on domestic soil.
Even that is far from guaranteed, with their next two
assignments after the Stormers – at least back in Durban, mind – being
defending Currie Cup champions the Lions, who rather humbled them in the 2011
showpiece of that competition, and then Super Rugby champions the Reds.
Easy-beats are in short supply on that list, so the Sharks
are going to have to dig deep to ensure that they are comfortably in the SA
conference picture by the time they depart for the four-match Antipodean leg
where desperately few wins, similarly, can ever be taken for granted.
For the record, their tour comprises Waratahs, Brumbies,
Hurricanes and Blues, which at least does not look overly fearsome as a
collective entity on paper; lots of critics tip generally lean seasons for the
Brumbies and Hurricanes.
There is pressure on Keegan Daniel and company to excel this
season, partly due to the continued drought experienced by this big outfit in
Super Rugby trophy terms, but also because many observers rated them South
Africa’s best prospects ahead of the campaign, despite concession that there is
perhaps no obviously superior side.
You just sense that they are short of forward firepower at
present, thanks in no small measure to the injury bogey hitting them especially
cruelly in this key area – latest news that experienced, dynamic-running No 8
Ryan Kankowski is sidelined for a month
now only adds to the distress.
The whole Sharks
philosophy is, and has been for many years, based around a big arsenal of
committed ball-carriers and crunching tacklers and grapplers in their pack: currently,
hooker Bismarck du Plessis seems to stand just a little “alone” in that regard
as they await later returns to the mix of core characters like Beast Mtawarira
and Jean Deysel.
It appears as if wrecking ball Willem Alberts is ready for at
least some action at Newlands, and that comes as a tonic, but he also comes to
this city glaringly short of a gallop and it may be optimistic to expect a
consistently rugged 80 minutes out of the brawny Springbok.
Other links in their forward armoury are loose, too: the
lineout remains seriously unconvincing and Alistair Hargreaves’s own continued
sidelining hardly helps in that respect.
Character across the board is going to be an essential
device, then, as the Sharks seek to establish themselves among the
competition’s front-runners rather than disappear for the time being into some
kind of mid-table mediocrity.
There is one thing in their favour, provided that losing
matches in the early stages doesn’t become a dangerous habit of sorts: the wily
Plumtree has clearly prepared his squad with a “this is a marathon, not a
sprint” belief firmly in mind.
It explains why the Sharks had a notably less-than-taxing
off-season schedule; they had relatively undemanding outings against
second-tier South African opponents the Cavaliers and Kings, and maybe the
wisdom (if it is shown to be that) of that approach will come home to roost in
the run-in period of conference play during late June and July.
The Sharks do, after all, have a more favourable-looking second
half to their schedule, entirely in South Africa and with good opportunities
for refreshment as both their byes fall in that time, not to mention the
three-week Test window.
But have they got enough ammunition right now not to lose an
excessive amount of ground in the race?
That is what may be increasingly worrying their supporters,
with so many stalwarts absent from the park.
Truth be told, their current resources look tidy, with
customary assets in certain positions, but the XV as a whole somehow lacks an
important element – an aura.
Although these are early days indeed, what the Sharks will
want to avoid, you can be sure, is getting into the same sort of position the
Bulls found themselves in last season.
A long way off the front-runners at the midway point, they went on a brave late run
which netted them six wins on the trot before they slipped agonisingly back
into seventh place, just outside the playoffs, with defeat in their
bridge-too-far last game.
Their opponents that day?
Coincidentally, the Sharks ...
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: