Settled Sharks in pound seats
The injury list may be extensive, but Sharks coach John Plumtree is adamant it will be a more settled team that will start their 2013 campaign.
The injury list may be extensive, but Sharks coach John Plumtree is adamant it will be a more settled team that will start their 2013 campaign against the Cheetahs on Saturday.
If you roll the clock back 12 months, the Sharks were gearing themselves up for what turned out to be a highly successful season - despite the disappointment of finishing runners-up in both the Super Rugby and Currie Cup competitions.
In February last year the Durban-based franchise was beset by injuries to key players.
The start of their 2013 campaign has been equally disruptive for the same reasons.
Springbok loose forward Willem Alberts (shoulder) is the latest player to join the injury list - which already has key members of the squad like captain Keegan Daniel, centre Tim Whitehead, hooker Bismarck du Plessis, flyhalf Butch James and prop Dale Chadwick ruled out of the first few rounds of the Super Rugby season.
This year, though, the Sharks appear better prepared to handle the situation, or any others that may arise - a key difference that could improve on their third-place South African conference finish and their defeat to the Chiefs in the 2012 Final.
Another big problem for the coastal team last year was their early-season inconsistency - they lost three out of their opening five games - but that was something that was potentially tied in with their lengthy injury list.
"I think we're better prepared than we've ever been, physically and from an organisational point of view," coach John Plumtree said during their pre-season preparations.
"That's the result of having a settled team for a little while now. We've got some nice continuity in what we do."
The Sharks' depth will be crucial this year, with rising stars such as Paul Jordaan, Marcell Coetzee and Craig Burden, who played integral roles for the side during their excellent 2012 Super Rugby run, now a year older.
Highly-rated youngsters Cobus Reinach and Pieter-Steph du Toit emerged during the Currie Cup, with the Sharks losing in the final to Western Province, while Ryan Kankowski is back from his stint in Japan.
They also boast maturity in their Springbok-like squad that features Pat Lambie, Frans Steyn, JP Pietersen and Tendai Mtawarira among others.
Like the Stormers and Bulls, the KwaZulu-Natal outfit have also capitalised on the Lions' absence this year, recruiting the experienced James and lock Franco van der Merwe, who arrived at Kings Park on a season-long loan.
The most notable losses for the Sharks have come in the second row, where Alistair Hargreaves, only a bit-part player last year, Ross Skeate and Steven Sykes have left, along with versatile Frenchman Frederic Michalak.
"If you look at our squad, there is good depth in the backs, good depth in the locks now, good depth among the loose forwards … there is really good competition for places from one right through to 15," Plumtree said.
The Sharks, who thumped the Leopards (71-8) and Pumas (50-19) in pre-season warm-ups, will be led by Frans Steyn during the opening six weeks, at least, as Daniel recovers from a knee injury.
"Frans becomes the ideal candidate for the captaincy in terms of experience," Plumtree said.
"I've noticed a big difference in him in terms of his personality and character since he's come back from France.
"The players have a lot of respect for him as an individual and as a player."
The Sharks kick-off their Super rugby campaign against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein on Saturday.