A new coach, new combinations, some interesting selections and a massive weight of expectation could see the Sharks rise to the occasion, or capitulate under pressure in the toughest competition in the world.
No matter what any list says, the Sharks has been South Africa’s most successful Super rugby franchise. Yet, every year, they seem to fail at the final hurdle or two in the Super rugby competition.
In 2008 they managed to shake the bogey of the Currie Cup in which they followed a similar trend, which expectedly now has the Sharks fans expecting something similar for the Super 14.
They came close in 2007, losing out to the Bulls in the final seconds of the match. But it is a story all too familiar for Sharks supporters. So close, yet so far…
With the British and Irish Lions coming to South Africa later this year, every supporter can expect that the top and fringe players to be going at it hammer and tongs to be considered for selection in this once in a lifetime, historic tour – and with so many current Springboks and fringe players in the Sharks squad one can forgive Sharks supporters for almost demanding a faultless display from their team.
But it is not going to be easy.
The first hurdle the squad face is the fact that it is expected of them to not only make the play-offs, but possibly secure a home semi-final and then progress to the final given their recent history, and current form and talent within the squad.
It is impossible to explain to people how the expectation from fans influences the players, but take my word for it, it has a massive influence.
John Plumtree will also go into this year’s Super 14 as the head coach for the first time. He has achieved great success in 2008 with the Currie Cup, but as any seasoned Super 14 player and coach will tell you – this competition is a different kettle of fish.
Plumtree also opted to select Johann Muller as captain of his team ahead of the seasoned and experienced Bok skipper, John Smit. Muller did extremely well as captain in the absence of Smit and let’s not forget he also skippered the Boks in the past, but given the scenario they find themselves in currently, you can expect all eyes to be on Johann and his game and captaincy to be dissected in the finest detail – especially when things do not go so well.
Something I believe most guys miss which is vitally important to any team, are the combinations – and in the Sharks setup you have quite a couple of new combinations being employed this year.
In the front row John Smit will seemingly be taking on the role the national coach wants him in when he will take his place at tighthead prop. And although every single person in that front-row are by now seasoned internationals, the jury is still out on them as a combination.
Like most other South African teams, the Sharks have very talented loosies where Kankowski will look to stake his claim as first choice 8 for the Boks ahead of the current incumbent Pierre Spies. Deysel, as big a revelation as he was, will also enter his second season of top flight rugby at this level and one has to wonder whether the dreaded second-season syndrome will hit him?
When one looks at the backline, you will be forgiven to feel both extremely excited but also very apprehensive.
You more or less have new combinations at 9 and 10, 10 and 12, and 12 and 13. Only the back three are settled where JP Pietersen will look to continue his great form in the latter stages of 2008, Stefan Terblanche wanting to prove he is not just a good Currie Cup player, and Odwa Ndungane showing everyone that he is indeed better than his Bulls brother.
The backline does display a great sense of versatility where in the case of emergency a lot of players can cover crucial positions, but there must be a concern when it comes to seasoned, experienced back up players in the case of injuries to positions 9, 10, 12 and on wing.
What does count in the Sharks’ favour are two crucial points. They have a favourable draw, and this team knows how to make it to the play-offs.
Given the squads overall experience and talent there is no reason why they should not either, but together with a new coach in his first full Super 14 season, a couple of new combinations which is untested at this level, and a competition which is no doubt the longest and toughest competition in the world, the Sharks will have to remain grounded and focussed if they are to repeat their Currie Cup feat at Super rugby level.
The Sharks might be our best hope for Super rugby success, but nothing in this competition is done and dusted.Tweet