Super Rugby 2013 Preview 12: The Sharks

sharksBest comeback of the year award 2012 most definitely went to the Sharks. They had a somewhat up-and-down start, but suddenly changed gears in the second half of the season to become quite ruthless. Had they won a few more games at the beginning, they probably wouldn’t have had to travel so much in the knockout rounds, and that would have given them a better chance of success in the final.

The Sharks have now played in 4 finals since 1996, making a habit of doing so about every 5 years, but they have only once come close to going all the way. Sadly, the glory was snatched by the Bulls with a converted, yet very much debated, Habana try in overtime.

Very little player movement occurred during the off-season. Magical Michalak went back to France, and the sparks he create from the pivot will sorely be missed, especially considering that his potentially over-the-hill replacement, Butch James, hasn’t really been in the best shape since he returned from Bath in 2010, not to mention running the risk of being red or yellow carded at some point with him on the field. Luckily, they still have Lambie and a couple of versatile backs to fill in should they be needed.

The coastal side also waved goodbye to two rather average second rowers in Ross Skeate and Steven Sykes, and instead borrowed Franco van der Merwe from the Lions. This hard working lock doesn’t mind getting dirt on his jersey and will lend considerable strength to their lineout, an area that has let the Sharks down in times past. If he can be anywhere near the hero he was with the cricket bat (84 runs off 27 balls) in a Pro20 encounter with the Dolphins, a lot of fireworks can be expected in the coming season.

They’ve had a very stable squad for quite some time now and that is the reason there wasn’t a massive influx or exodus of players. At the moment even their injury list is one of the shortest among all franchises, but the calibre of the players that have been injured is of concern.

After tearing a crucial knee ligament whilst playing for the Springboks in August, Bismarck du Plessis has been seriously committed to doing anything necessary to recover and get himself back on the field. This, however, is currently only expected to happen about halfway into their season.

They were also dealt two serious blows during their warm-up match against the Leopards. Their massive 71-8 assault came at an even bigger price with captain Keegan Daniel limping off with a knee injury and Tim Whitehead leaving the field with what’s been confirmed a broken arm. Both will most likely be out of action for at least six weeks.

This is probably a good time to focus on the good news, and the Sharks definitely have sufficient depth to cover for the aforementioned misfortunes. When the paw-paw hit the fan at the Lions camp a while back, the Sharks were no slouches and quickly pounced on the opportunity to pull Carlos Spencer into the Shark Tank. The future of Pat Lambie at flyhalf will surely look brighter with a maestro like this in charge, even though I still feel Lambie should play fullback.

Just to show how much Frans Steyn has matured since returning from France, coach John Plumtree chose him to lead the attack on the Leopards, and now due to the unfortunate absence of Keegan Daniel, Mr Cannon Foot has been asked to fill those boots a bit longer.

They have some extremely talented youngsters in Paul Jordaan, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Marcel van der Merwe, the latter already a Springbok, and there are many experienced campaigners in their ranks. I’d definitely keep my eyes on Willem Albert, JP Pietersen and Riaan Viljoen.

It’s really difficult to decide who’s going to end up where when you get to the top of the order and normally it only takes one match to swing it. One thing is certain, the Sharks have never been this determined and look a well-drilled unit. In order not to end up playing catch-up again, they’ll have to start by winning the first couple of matches and perform more consistently than they did last year.

I reckon they are going to fight every match to the death, maybe a possible hiccough here or there, but the determining factor for me is that they have now been labeled as chokers whereas the their coastal rivals down south managed to eventually get that monkey off their back.

To me, that swung my vote, and I predict the Sharks to come second in the SA conference and finish in 4th place overall.

by Jackie Smit