Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – It is likely to be more blunt-instrument than it will be ballet shoes, much of the time.
But the recently recruitment-active Sharks, whether you are a devotee of their methods or not, seem tidily poised from a squad-depth and quality point of view to mount their best challenge for several years in 2018 for elusive Super Rugby honours.
It is also abundantly clear from the type of personnel they will have available that another year will go by without the franchise shaking off that long-term, generalised tag of “bashers” … in fact, they may be even more unashamedly direct and collision-keen next season than we have seen from them in some time.
In several respects, they might roll the clock back in style terms to 2007, the famous (or infamous, take your pick?) year they came the closest yet to winning Super Rugby, Bryan Habana’s dramatic last-ditch try after the apparently too-faint siren at the time stealing the title for the Bulls from under their Kings Park noses in the final.
The team they possessed that year featured muscular endeavour almost all the way across the park, as evidenced by the starting combo that came so wretchedly close to securing the silverware.
They had big wings – JP Pietersen and Frans Steyn, the highly versatile latter a little unusually playing in that slot – robust centres in Waylon Murray and Brad Barritt, and a combative, tough-tackling flyhalf in a certain Butch James.
Up front, meanwhile, there was a big blind-sider in AJ Venter who could double as a lock, second-row grunt from no-nonsense, late-career Johan Ackermann and partner Johann Muller, and skipper John Smit as a chunky hooker who also propped both sides of the scrum at various levels of the game at times.
Thinking about the likely “first team” at the outset of Super Rugby 2018, there could be some very noticeable similarities in the area of brawny conviction.
Their wing stocks will not lack height or kilograms with the likes of (presumably fit-again) S’bu Nkosi and Kobus van Wyk still there, and facing stern challenges from Makazole Mapimpi, the fresh signing from the Cheetahs who will as interested as ever in visiting the try-line if suitable holes have been punched in defences – and they should -- a bit closer in.
A midfield combination of Lukhanyo Am, not afraid to get his mitts dirty at breakdowns, and Andre Esterhuizen – there won’t be many No 12s bigger than him in next year’s competition, though his discipline is sometimes open to major scrutiny – will hardly be shrinking violets.
The confirmed return to Durban of a now infinitely wiser, more mature and polished pivot Robert du Preez from Newlands is just a further signal that the Sharks backline as a whole should not be too over-awed by occasional, behemoth Pacific Island-hailing athletes running at them for NZ or Aussie franchises.
Yes, that’s even with the slight but mercurial Curwin Bosch potentially operating at fullback for the Durban outfit – and maybe even confirming fairly quickly that it is his best position anyway?
Should Du Preez and Bosch more often than not be on the field at the same time – I’d tip that to be the case – the Sharks will also have the comfort of two decent place-kickers, and the generous range on Bosch’s drop and line-kicking into the agreeable bargain.
It’s true that the surrender of Cobus Reinach to Northampton sacrifices some livewire qualities at scrumhalf next season, but investing in Louis Schreuder (from the Kings) ahead of the 2017 Currie Cup, where they won the round-robin comfortably before being eventual runners-up to WP, represented at least a partial rebalancing of resources in the berth.
In the same vein, and clearly determined not to noticeably weaken their staff despite the inevitability these days of annual losses to pastures abroad, the departure of Etienne Oosthuizen to the French Top 14 is offset by the presence – he also got to Kings Park in time for the latest Currie Cup – of ex-Kings utility tyro Tyler Paul, 22 and with plenty of time yet to blossom.
The Du Preez loose forward twins, still only turning 23 in the second half of next year, will be as ready as ever to knock lumps out of enemy stoppers when they’re on the front foot, whilst the Sharks tight five won’t be lightweight either.
Certainly not when you have props like Thomas du Toit, Tendai Mtawarira and Coenie Oosthuizen to pick from, and combatants like Stephan Lewies and Ruan Botha directly behind them in the engine room.
Coach Robert du Preez snr is single-minded and driven enough (those aren’t the worst qualities, whatever your personal thoughts on him and his ways) not to care too much whether some pundits suggest they’re somehow stuck in “dinosaur” methods – heard that one in Durban before? – especially if they are grinding out wins, as I fancy they will more often than not in 2018.
There was a time when visiting teams dreaded the prospect of being left both breathless in the late summer humidity and badly bruised as well when they made the trek to Kings Park in Super Rugby; that phenomenon may be set for a discernible revisit.
At worst, the Sharks – a humdrum eighth overall in 2017 -- should pose a major threat to the Lions’ now two-year supremacy of the South African Super Rugby challenge next year.
While taking the highly likely, ongoing majesty of several NZ franchises soberly into account, they may well be a cheeky, long-range little flutter for the overall title, too …
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