Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - A glance at the statistics from last year’s competition does little to suggest the Sharks are suddenly going to become a significant “ooh and aah” team for entertainment value in Super Rugby 2020.
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Eventual champions and long-time premier tournament icons the Crusaders, for example, romped to a market-leading 73 tries after the ordinary-season phase - eight superior to the next best Brumbies (65).
The Sharks? They were a long, long way down the list (although their try concession rate was encouragingly lean) with a mere 40 to show, leaving them only ahead of the Stormers and Sunwolves (34 each) in “tries for” ahead of the finals series phase.
But much water has passed beneath rugby’s bridge subsequently ... not least the Springboks’ rousing ascension to RWC 2019 glory, featuring influential back-division contributions from the likes of Durban-based wing flier and booming improver Makazole Mapimpi, plus the wonderfully cerebral Lukhanyo Am in the Bok midfield.
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Had it not been for the enduring majesty of French-based pocket rocket Cheslin Kolbe on the right wing, the No 14 shirt for the major clashes of the Japan-hosted event would almost certainly have been worn by another appetite-laden Sharks kingpin, S'bu Nkosi.
Back in Durban itself, of course, a major shake-up has taken place between Super Rugby campaigns, with the departure of a raft of Du Preez family members - head coach Robert, seldom prone to notable charm offensives, the battering-ram loose forward twins Jean-Luc and Dan, and traditionally direct flyhalf Robert.
Into the breach has come Sean Everitt as new mastermind, and, while there has been the almost customary exodus of varying playing personnel, many of the newcomers across the board position-wise this season seem geared toward gradually breaking down the Sharks’ persistent reputation as a “route one”, unashamedly physical and seldom self-expression conducive kind of team.
There were encouraging signs, even on the still experiment-conscious Super Hero Sunday at FNB Stadium, that the Sharks plan to go more up-tempo, creative and partial to letting instinct dictate some moves in 2020.
While they nominally lost 21-19 to the Stormers in the first game on the festival bill, it was hardly a train smash as they shared the try count 3-3 (theirs were all easy on the eye, too) and were unlucky to have two further near-champagne ones ruled out after TMO perusal.
Nkosi’s disallowed dot-down after a typically muscular, committed bulldoze over the chalk seemed especially harsh as there was at least some evidence of enough downward pressure.
Still, Everitt had reason to feel pleased by the showing of his backline as a whole, considering that the starting seven looked pretty clearly like his first-choice one: Louis Schreuder and Curwin Bosch the halfback combo, Andre Esterhuizen and Am in midfield, and a back three of Mapimpi, Nkosi and Aphelele Fassi.
Several of the top New Zealand franchises, as ever, will field punch-packing backlines of their own - the title-holding ‘Saders only really have the Ryan Crotty (to Kubota Spears) hole to fill among their major offensive factors and could remain the standard-bearers for try-prolific excellence.
But that Sharks combination looks equipped not to have to stand back to many - and especially in the SA conference - for X-factor considerations and sheer pace and thrust in 2020.
Yes, question marks linger about Bosch’s defensive game in the demanding No 10 slot, but he has the rugged Esterhuizen alongside him for useful supplementary aid in that area of play, and his footwork, elusiveness and the range of his all-round kicking could see him prosper if he gets an extended tenure at last in the position.
The Sharks have two other appealingly deft (despite their obvious rawness) young pivots on their books in Jordan Chait and Boeta Chamberlain, while seasoned Schreuder’s main back-up at No 9 is quite likely to be another exceptionally slippery, inventive young character in Alice-born Sanele Nohamba.
Wings Mapimpi and Nkosi are an ideal foil for each other at Nos 11 and 14 respectively, with the former a lean, finisher-extraordinaire whippet - and increasingly assertive under a high ball - and the latter a dynamic bundle of energy and power.
This could feasibly, too, be the season where long-legged, tackle-busting fullback Fassi, still only on the brink of his 22nd birthday but backed by two years of Currie Cup exposure and one already of Super Rugby, profoundly announces himself as a tournament-wide trump card.
Much will depend, naturally, on the quality of possession the Sharks pack is able to provide over the next few months; the jury’s out on that one as they will field several new engine-room combinations and can’t yet be said to boast a uniquely formidable forward arsenal on paper.
But we can already be certain that recent signings like loosehead prop Ox Nche and athletic loose forward Sikhumbuzo Notshe will participate eagerly in hand-to-hand play.
I can’t see the Sharks challenging for the title yet, but we may see some constructive steps back in that direction in 2020 ... and a decent chance that they will be, at very least, a good watch.
They must do everything possible to exploit their riches in strike power among the backline.
I sense Everitt knows it.
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