The Sharks and Kings will both have a point to prove in Port Elizabeth on Saturday.
The Sharks endured an utterly forgettable campaign in 2015, managing to win just seven games on their way to a disappointing 11th-place finish. Defence and discipline were very problematic for the Durbanites last year, and it’s in these key areas where they’ll be looking for a vast improvement this season.
New defence coach Omar Mouneimne has been working with the players throughout the pre-season, and clear improvements were evident in the Sharks’ warm-up matches in France.
A strong defensive showing against a new-look Kings side, sure to battle with cohesion and rhythm on attack, will be the first ingredient in what should be a recipe for success in Port Elizabeth.
The Sharks are a team in transition after losing a number of high-profile stars at the end of last season, and a new leadership group – with Beast Mtawarira interestingly named as the stand-in captain in the absence of the injured Pat Lambie – will have an important role to play.
There is a different feel to the Sharks side selected for their Super Rugby opener, with the Du Preez brothers starting in the loose trio, Hyron Andrews lining up in the second row and talented André Esterhuizen slotting in at inside centre. New recruits Coenie Oosthuizen and Willie le Roux will also start.
The visitors should be far too strong for a Kings side re-entering Super Rugby under a persistent cloud of doubt since SA Rugby was forced to take over the franchise and cobble together a makeshift squad.
Veteran Steven Sykes will lead a Kings side with very few household names, and their main aim will simply be to produce a competitive performance that provides their fans with some glimmer of hope for a long season ahead.
The only factors in their favour are that they will be playing at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, a venue where they received incredible support in their debut season in 2013, while they have absolutely nothing to lose after being widely written off before the start of this season.
The Kings managed to pull off a major surprise when they clinched victory over the Force in their debut Super Rugby match in 2013, but there should be no repeat performance this time around.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: Sharks 2, Kings 0
In Port Elizabeth: Sharks 1, Kings 0
STATS AND FACTS
– This will be only the third meeting between these sides, with the Sharks winning both previous matches by an aggregate score of 79-25.
– This will be the Kings’ first Super Rugby match since 2013, their only season in the competition, and they are yet to claim victory over a fellow South African team.
– The Sharks finished their 2015 Super Rugby season with three straight victories. A fourth would represent their longest streak since they won five in a row in 2014.
– The Sharks gained the fewest metres per game on average last season (344), while their tackle success was the worst in the league (83%).
– The Kings conceded 564 points in their 2013 Super Rugby campaign, the third most of any team in a season in Super Rugby history.
Kings – 15 Jurgen Visser, 14 Luzuko Vulindlu, 13 JP du Plessis, 12 Shane Gates, 11 Malcolm Jaer, 10 Elgar Watts, 9 Ntando Kebe, 8 Jacques Engelbrecht, 7 Thembelani Bholi, 6 Chris Cloete, 5 JC Astle, 4 Steven Sykes (c), 3 Tom Botha, 2 Martin Ferreira, 1 Schalk Ferreira.
Subs: 16 Edgar Marutlulle, 17 Sti Sithole, 18 Louis Albertse, 19 Schalk Oelofse, 20 Cyril-John Velleman, 21 Leighton Eksteen, 22 Louis Fouché, 23 Charles Radebe.
Sharks – 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Odwa Ndungane, 13 Paul Jordaan, 12 André Esterhuizen, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Joe Pietersen, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Daniel du Preez, 7 Jean-Luc du Preez, 6 Marcell Coetzee, 5 Hyron Andrews, 4 Etienne Oosthuizen, 3 Coenie Oosthuizen, 2 Franco Marais, 1 Beast Mtawarira (c).
Subs: 16 Kyle Cooper, 17 Juan Schoeman, 18 Lourens Adriaanse, 19 David McDuling, 20 Philip van der Walt, 21 Michael Claassens, 22 Garth April, 23 S’bura Sithole.
Referee: Jaco van Heerden (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Rodney Bonaparte (South Africa), AJ Jacobs (South Africa)
TMO: Marius Jonker (South Africa)