Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - The wait goes on for a Sharks team still with the undesired record of having got closer than anybody to winning the Super Rugby crown (in 2007) without actually doing so ... can they finally get it right 13 years onward in 2020?
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Bulls (h), Highlanders (a), Hurricanes (a), Rebels (a), Reds (a), Jaguares (h), Stormers (h), Chiefs (h), bye, Lions (a), Waratahs (h), Stormers (a), Brumbies (h), Lions (h), Jaguares (a), Bulls (a), Crusaders (h), bye. Don’t play: Blues, Sunwolves.
Their record last season:
Third in SA conference, sixth overall (seven wins, eight losses, one draw). Beaten 38-13 in Canberra quarter-final by Brumbies.
Five potential strengths:
*As suggested separately on Sport24 recently, the Sharks will boast one of the most punch-laden backlines in the whole competition, and almost certainly the premier back division in South Africa - they are especially blessed in the back three where rangy Aphelele Fassi at fullback and the wide strike force of Makazole Mapimpi and S’bu Nkosi are capable of mayhem when on the front foot.
*If byes are occasionally seen as counterproductive because they can make a team go a tad stale for the game immediately afterwards, the Sharks won’t have that “problem”: they play their matches this season in two specific sequences of eight on the trot, with only one little gap in the middle. Reason? Well, read on in the “snags” section ...
*If (and it’s a fairly big “if”) Curwin Bosch has worked sufficiently on the defensive side of his game, the likelihood that he gets a chance to settle into the pivot role could pay dividends through his slippery footwork, and that deceptive amount of range he gets on kicks both out of hand and at the posts.
*The shift away - or so it seems - from a strongly collision-based game that has punctuated the Sharks’ play for a couple of decades, really, and not always been enormously successful. It’s a necessary development, too, when you consider some of the brawny individuals they have lost (including from the Du Preez family) ... there’s a chance we could see a constructive new dawn in playing style.
*A local youth system that is finally beginning to pay off, after years in which the Sharks so often stood accused of “poaching” from smaller unions. Just some home-grown greenhorns who could properly announce themselves in this year’s competition include scrumhalf Sanele Nohamba, loose forward Phepsi Buthelezi and behemoth lock JJ van der Mescht (who may be Pretoria-born, but came through the Glenwood school ranks).
Five possible snags:
*The Sharks will be irked that they don’t get to play the Sunwolves this season: let’s face it, the game with “win” written all over it for most credible sides in the competition, especially as the Japanese franchise know they are getting the boot next year and have cobbled together a particularly threadbare new squad for the 2020 swansong.
*Playing under a new coaching regime this season, it is perhaps not ideal that the Durban-based side play arguably their four toughest games in a single sequence - the Australasian tour - as early as from round two. They will need to be a really cohesive unit by then ... or run the risk of playing catch-up for much of the remainder of pre-knockout season.
*Their pack, on paper, probably isn’t going to look as formidable as their potent backline (at least when it’s at full strength) so they may require some individuals in the engine room to play well above themselves if the back division are to get the necessary quality ball to strut their attacking stuff.
*In a linked observation, the onus on Ox Nche to prove a genuinely capable replacement for old favourite Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira, who leaves a huge void, plus a need for Thomas du Toit to show more profound fruits this year of his (initially awkward) switch to the tighthead side of the scrum. That said, both men will be sturdy ball-carriers and crunching tacklers.
*A nasty little sting in the ordinary season tail, maybe: the Sharks play their final fixture at home to the legendary Crusaders in the second-last round, before the inconvenience of a bye on the final weekend. So one of those rounds WILL be fruitless in log points terms, and the other a hugely demanding date. They may need a comfortable prior cushion …
Fabulous, fair, or fallible?
Sport24 verdict: Fair
READ: SA Super Rugby strengths, snags - LIONS
READ: SA Super Rugby strengths, snags - BULLS