Super Rugby preview: Sharks
Cape Town - 2015 was a torrid Super Rugby season for the Sharks, but they have bulked up ahead of the new campaign and are now settled under the tutelage of Gary Gold.
Two impressive pre-season warm-ups in France have given a sense of hope in Durban, and despite a tough draw that sees them face all of the New Zealand franchises, there are many who think that the Sharks possess the goods to top their group ahead of the Lions and Jaguares and make it through to the play-offs.
The loss of flyhalf and captain Pat Lambie is obviously a massive blow, and they do have a number of injuries going into the season, but on the surface there appears to be a lot of depth in Gold's squad.
Coach: Gary Gold
Last season: 4th in SA conference, 11th overall
Grouped with: Lions, Kings, Jaguares
Potential strengths: The Sharks have abundant depth in the loose-forward department, and the combinations that they have at their disposal provide possibly their biggest asset going into the season. Marcell Coetzee, Jacques Potgieter, Keegan Daniel, the Du Preez twins (Daniel and Jean-Luc), Tera Mtembu, Renaldo Bothma, Philip van der Walt, Etienne Oosthuizen, Jean Deysel and Khaya Majola are the names that Gold will have to consider when they are all fit.
Potential weaknesses: It is hard to look past the loss of Lambie. Gold does have the options of Super Rugby novice Garth April and seasoned veteran Joe Pietersen, but so much hinged on Lambie being the general this season ... as was illustrated by him being handed the captaincy. The Sharks have also lost the Du Plessis brothers - Jannie and Bismarck - in their front row.
Players to watch: Well, if April gets his chance then he will certainly have a lot of attention on him as he looks to step into Lambie's shoes. Elsewhere, there is much excitement surrounding Willie le Roux's move to Durban, and his natural attacking instincts from 15 will give the Sharks a different dimension. In the forwards there is a lot of hype around Potgieter as the potential replacement 'bone-crusher' for Willem Alberts. The form of Paul Jordaan in midfield could also be a major contributor to any success that comes Gold's way.
Realistic aim: Topping the group and securing a home semi-final. From there ... who knows?
Players in: Ruan Botha (Stormers), Johan Deysel (Leopards), Michael Claassens (Toulon), Willie le Roux (Cheetahs), Keegan Daniel (Kubota), David McDuling (Reds), Wandile Mjekevu (Perpignan), Coenie Oosthuizen (Cheetahs), Joe Pietersen (Cheetahs), Jacques Potgieter (Waratahs), Chiliboy Ralepelle (Toulouse), Philip van der Walt (Biarritz)
Players out: Willem Alberts (Stade Français), JC Astle (Kings), Mouritz Botha (Newcastle), Lionel Cronjé (released), Bismarck du Plessis (Montpellier), Jannie du Plessis (Montpellier), Pieter-Steph du Toit (Stormers), Wiehan Hay (released), Ryan Kankowski (SA Sevens), SP Marais (Kings), Waylon Murray (released), Frans Steyn (Montpellier), Jaco van Tonder (released), Marco Wentzel (released), Jack Wilson (Otago), Cameron Wright (Montpellier), Fred Zeilinga (Cheetahs)
First fixture: February 27, Kings (a)