The Sharks, as Currie Cup champions and Super 14 semifinalists for the last two years (runners-up in 2007), know they will be targeted by other teams trying to knock over South Africa’s big guns.
However, the Durban-based franchise is determined to do in Super Rugby what they did in the Currie Cup – finally win the title.
Rugby 365 reports that after ending their 12-year Currie Cup drought by beating the Blue Bulls in the Final in October, the John Plumtree-coached Sharks are working hard on “kicking on” and also going all the way at Super 14 level next year.
In 13 years of Super Rugby the Sharks established themselves as South Africa’s most successful team – three time runners-up and reaching the play-offs on another three occasions.
Only the Crusaders (seven-times champions), the Blues (three-times champions) and the Brumbies (twice winners) have been more successful.
The Sharks know that expectations are obviously high for next year, considering their success in the Currie Cup as well as reaching the play-offs in consecutive Super 14 tournaments.
Centre Riaan Swanepoel, one of several young players who rose to prominence during the Currie Cup, readily acknowledges the challenges the Sharks will face next year.
“We set the standards now and while we don’t want to be too overconfident, we do have a great side, a great coach and we’ll just take it game for game and go on from there,” Swanepoel said in an interview on sharksrugby.co.za.
Asked about the team’s Super Rugby prospects for 2009, he was very upbeat.
“We have a good chance.
“Obviously there is a lot of pressure now, but we can cope with it!”
The 22-year-old Swanepoel rose to prominence from relative obscurity during the Currie Cup season, but tasting triumph with the Sharks, and certainly having contributed towards that success, he is determined to continue to be a part of the squad’s success.
He was lured to Durban from Kimberley by Swys de Bruin and has come through the ranks at Under-19, Under-21, as well as Vodacom Cup and Currie Cup level.
“And hopefully Super 14 next year,” he told the Sharksrugby.co.za.
“After the Vodacom Cup where I had quite a steady, solid tournament, I got included in the Currie Cup squad, got some game time and things went well,” he explained.
He found his integration into the senior side fairly seamless, having been involved in the greater training squad.
“They are all a bunch of great guys, a brilliant squad,” he said, adding: “It didn’t take long at all to feel comfortable and feel part of the squad.”
During the early stages of the Currie Cup tournament, when the major unions were without their Springboks during the mid-year Tests and the Tri-Nations, the Sharks especially were particularly hard hit in terms of a player drain.
It was then that players like Swanepoel (seven matches, two starts, two tries), Chris Jordaan, Charl McLeod, Skholiwe Ndlovu, Alistair Hargreaves and Nikolai Blignaut kept the flag flying.
They gave the Sharks a strong platform from which to launch their late challenge, culminating in Currie Cup glory on October 25 – ending a 12-year drought in South Africa’s premier domestic competition.
“It was a great experience for me, my first Currie Cup and first medal. It was really nice and not something that often happens to a person their first time doing something new, to be a part of a successful team like this.”
Along with a well-assembled, highly-skilled side, he points to the impact of coach John Plumtree in his guidance of the team.
“He’s a really good coach, a great guy. The difference I think was that he brought back the honour and pride in the jersey, the respect for it, to play for the jersey.
“We got really close as a team, that’s what he brought in, and the spirit and friendships in the team which made us close, and made us play for each other and for a great coach.”
Having taken part in the rigours of preseason training, he will be enjoying the Christmas break before the players return in early January as they plot their campaign and ready themselves for the Super 14.
As part of the training squad, he has high hopes and is preparing himself for action, but knows selection won’t be automatic.
“We’ll see when we come back after the break what happens. Hopefully I get a few minutes of game time in the warm-ups and see what happens from there.”Tweet