Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - Following the more optimistic-angled first assessment, these are the possible stumbling blocks to the Sharks having a rip-roaring Super Rugby 2019:
Will they all be on the same page?
While it must be stated straight up that you don’t hear many allegations (either overt or more whispered) of family favouritism in the ranks, it also can’t be that straightforward having a head coach, in Robert du Preez snr, who presides over a trio of sons amidst the squad.
Perhaps not completely irrelevantly on that score, it has been reported that Dick Muir, who had been guiding their attack plans, parted ways with the Sharks primarily because he favoured the silkier skills of Curwin Bosch in the flyhalf channel, whereas Du Preez was more partial to his physically stronger, more willingly flat ball-receiving son and namesake.
Nepotism may not have come into it at all: they are just very different beasts at pivot and the head coach may have been swayed (will things change in 2019?) by the lingering fears over Bosch’s defence in a busy area of the park.
Du Preez snr comes across more often than not as a fairly blunt, no-nonsense sort of individual, and perhaps his biggest challenge in his third season at the helm - so no more room for any “bedding down” considerations, you would think - will be to show just a touch more flexibility in tactical terms, and defter man-management.
The Sharks have a decent squad with comforting depth in many berths … making universal buy-in and harmony especially necessary, some might argue with justification, for much-needed prosperity in 2019.
That stubborn “basher” reputation
There are days, almost every season, when the Sharks suddenly look a million dollars.
But “suddenly” is a very pertinent word: it suggests the habit doesn’t happen often enough.
A case in point last season was that fabulous, seven-try whipping of the Blues on tour (63-40) and then some rotten luck that saw them denied an even more meritorious victory over the fancied Hurricanes in Napier; they succumbed 38-37 right at the death.
But as if to demonstrate a bipolar hallmark, they then returned to home base and were immediately humiliated 10-40 by the Bulls in Durban.
There were several other matches where they looked sterile and lethargic, struggling to find multi-dimensional aspects to their play and just stirring up that old charge that they are too unsubtle, conservative and bash-conscious, if you like, at times.
As mentioned in part one, their capabilities in the physicality department should prove an asset often enough ... but are they finally ready and willing to get the ball more regularly and crisply to wide marauders like Makazole Mapimpi, S’bu Nkosi and the slippery Bosch (if he’s at fullback)?
We should see soon enough.
A nasty end to their programme
If the Sharks truly aspire this year to an ordinary-season finish near the very top of the overall tower, they might need to be more or less assured of that status before their closing two games come around, at a time when the scramble for KO places and decent seedings in that phase reaches fever pitch.
Unfortunately they have near-stinkers on paper to round off the roster, and both of them away from Kings Park.
First it’s the tough trek to Buenos Aires to play the Jaguares, who in 2018 knocked off all four SA teams at home (including Sharks by a comfortable 29-13 margin) and then the closing tussle is a - perhaps pivotal - Newlands-staged derby against the Stormers.
The Capetonians beat them by 11 points in the corresponding fixture last year, which again only emphasises how the Sharks could fade from the picture dramatically if they haven’t built up a healthy buffer on the table by then.
Something else to consider: their main overseas leg (from late April) isn’t exactly filled with easy-beats, either: Waratahs, Crusaders and Chiefs in that order.
The attendance issues at Kings Park
Legendary scribe AC “Ace” Parker used to talk of how the “Newlands roar” would be a powerful extra Currie Cup motivator for Western Province in their early 1980s heyday ... and worth the three points or so that might tilt a desperately tight encounter.
Even in Cape Town, of course, gates have gone alarmingly backwards in recent years, despite the international feel and global superstar names that modern Super Rugby provides.
But the situation is more acute in Durban, where the bean-counters must be desperate to somehow recapture the sort of routinely swollen crowds really last evident in the Gary Teichmann era as captain, when they were often high-riders in the infant competition and had some cult-figure names like Henry Honiball, Ollie le Roux, Mark Andrews and Andre Joubert.
Now the CEO, Teichmann and his closest lieutenants will know that a compelling start (it’s possible ... see part one of this study!) is essential to the Sharks pulling in better numbers again to their ageing stadium.
Until then, home advantage will arguably remain more humidity-related in the first couple of months than in terms of frenzied masses of fans cowing opponents into submission.
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