Ahead of the 2018 Super Rugby season we take a closer look at each of the tournament’s 15 teams participating. Next up, the Sharks.
The Sharks are, once again, expected to be amongst the front-runners of the South African contingent in the competition. Since the tournament’s inception, in 1996, the Durban-based outfit have played in three finals but they finished on the losing side on each occasion.
Head coach Robert du Preez is in his second year at the helm and has signed some exciting players which should help them improve, but they will also rely heavily on the 12 Springboks in their squad in what should be a hotly contested South African group.
Last Year: The Sharks’ campaign started with three successive matches against Australian opposition. They lost their season opener to the Reds in Brisbane but bounced back with a hard-fought win over the Brumbies and then returned to Durban where they notched a good win against the Waratahs.
Their next match was a tight affair against the Kings but the Sharks eventually claimed a narrow 19-17 win in Durban before beating the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein.
They suffered a setback when the Lions beat them in Johannesburg in Round 6 but bounced back with a win over the Jaguares in Durban. They followed that up with a dull draw against the Rebels in Durban – a match which was arguably the most disappointing result of their campaign.
They headed to Buenos Aires where they saw off the Jaguares before returning to Durban where they claimed a comfortable win over the Western Force. But things went pear-shaped in their Round 12 clash with the Kings as they suffered a three-point defeat against their hosts.
Wins over the Sunwolves in Singapore and the Stormers in Durban were followed by disappointing losses to the Bulls in Pretoria and Lions in Johannesburg in their last two league matches.
The men from Durban delivered a gallant display in their quarter-final against the Lions in Johannesburg and pushed their hosts all the way until Ruan Combrinck slotted an angled 58-metre penalty shortly before full-time to secure a 23-21 victory for his side.
This Year: The Sharks face a tricky assignment in their tournament opener against the Lions in Johannesburg on 17 February and they follow that up with a bye in Round Two.
Their next two fixtures are in Durban against the Waratahs and Sunwolves before they head on their Australasian tour where they take on the Brumbies and Melbourne Rebels in Australia and the Blues and Hurricanes in New Zealand.
They return to Durban where they will host South African rivals the Bulls and Stormers on successive weekends and then have a bye in Round 11, but they will again have home ground advantage in their next encounter, against the Highlanders.
The Sharks then head to Pretoria to face the Bulls before returning to Durban to take on the Chiefs but after that have a tough encounter against the Jaguares in Buenos Aires in Round 15.
They have a bye in the next round before the competition takes a break for the June Internationals and return to action on 30 June when they host the Lions in Durban.
The campaign draws to a close when they travel to Cape Town before they face the Jaguares in their final match of the league phase of the tournament, in Durban on 14 July.
Key players: Curwin Bosch is a youngster who has shown great maturity and from whom big things are expected in 2018. He pulled the strings in the Sharks’ back-line last year when playing at fly-half, which was a shot in the arm for the Durban-based outfit as he was filling in for injured Springbok Pat Lambie and also showed his versatility by slotting in at full-back when required.
With former Stormers fly-half Robert du Preez junior joining the Sharks, Bosch could be wearing the number 15 jersey more often and the prospect of seeing the younger Du Preez and the one-cap Springbok in the same starting line-up is something Sharks fans will find delightfully reassuring as they two of the brightest prospects in the South African game.
Another player of whom much is expected is Ruan Botha, who has been handed the captaincy reins for this season. Botha will not be daunted by the added pressure of the leadership role as he already has experience in the position after captaining the Sharks during last year’s Currie Cup. Botha thrives with the added responsibility and has emerged as the team’s leading lock over the past year. He was part of the Springbok squad on last year’s end-of-year tour although he is yet to make his Test debut. He will be determined to stake his international claim with some fine performances for the Sharks.
Players to watch: A new signing to keep an eye on is former Southern Kings and Cheetahs flyer Makazole Mapimpi. The 27-year-old is one of the best finishers in the game and heads into his first season at the Sharks after scoring 11 Super Rugby tries for the Kings, 10 at PRO14 level for the Cheetahs and seven in the Currie Cup for the Bloemfontein-based outfit in 2017. If his inside backs can create space for him on attack, he should continue with his impressive try-scoring record.
Another player who will be in the spotlight is young front-row forward Thomas du Toit, who has been moved from loosehead to tighthead prop on the recommendation of SA Rugby’s scrum expert, former France prop Pieter de Villiers. Du Toit is a renowned scrummager, and is no stranger to the tighthead role as he has played there before, but there will be added pressure on him as he will be taking over from Sharks’ first-choice number three, Springbok Coenie Oosthuizen, who suffered a serious knee injury on the Boks’ end-of-year tour last year.
Prospects: The Sharks should be challenging for honours in what will be a very competitive South African Conference. We expect them to reach the play-offs, but once again, to bow out in the quarter-finals.
Players In: Armand van der Merwe (Lions), Ross Geldenhuys (Southern Kings), Robert du Preez (Stormers), Makazole Mapimpi (Cheetahs), Tyler Paul (Kings), Gideon Koegelenberg (Zebre), Louis Schreuder (Kings), Cameron Wright (Montpellier), Leolin Zas (Stormers)
Players Out: Pat Lambie (Racing 92), Cobus Reinach (Northampton Saints), Sibusiso Sithole (Kings), Khaya Majola (Kings), Odwa Ndungane (retired), Stephan Coetzee (Kings), Jean Deysel (Ulster), Rowan Gouws (Kings), Lourens Adriaanse (Pau), Francois Kleynhans (Pumas), Etienne Oosthuizen (Lyon), Hanco Venter (released), Clément Poitrenaud (retired), Coenie Oosthuizen (injured), Inny-Christian Radebe (released)
Saturday, 17 February v Lions (Emirates Airlines Park, Johannesburg)
Round 2: BYE
Saturday, 3 March v Waratahs (Growthpoint Kings Park, Durban)
Saturday, 10 March v Sunwolves (Growthpoint Kings Park, Durban)
Saturday, 17 March v Brumbies (GIO Stadium, Canberra)
Friday, 23 March v Rebels (AAMI Park, Melbourne)
Saturday, 31 March v Blues (tbc)
Friday, 6 April v Hurricanes (tbc)
Saturday, 14 April v Bulls (Growthpoint Kings Park, Durban)
Saturday, 21 April v Stormers (Growthpoint Kings Park, Durban)
Round 11: BYE
Saturday, 5 May v Highlanders (Growthpoint Kings Park, Durban)
Saturday, 12 May v Bulls (Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria)
Saturday, 19 May v Chiefs (Growthpoint Kings Park, Durban)
Friday, 25 May v Jaguares (Velez Sarsfield, Buenos Aires)
Saturday, 30 June v Lions (Growthpoint Kings Park, Durban)
Saturday, 7 July v Stormers (Newlands, Cape Town)
Saturday, 14 July v Chiefs (Growthpoint Kings Park, Durban)