The pick of Saturday's Super Rugby matches sees potential champions the Sharks open up their season at home to the Bulls.
The pick of Saturday's two Super Rugby matches sees potential champions the Sharks open up their season at home to the Bulls.
Let's hope Jake White's players can handle the hype, although with 11 Springboks in the starting side for Saturday there is no lack of experience.
After years of underachieving – the Sharks have made four Super Rugby finals but never won – the air in Durban is one of expectation.
They appear on paper to be South Africa's best prospect of winning a Super Rugby title in 2014, with a lot of that optimism stemming from the return to South Africa of former World Cup-winning coach White.
White's tenure with the Brumbies saw him elevate the struggling Australian franchise from 13th place in 2011 to missing out on the title last season against the Chiefs, playing an attacking brand of rugby and getting the best out of a talented, youthful group that have only improved over time.
With the Sharks, White already has the proven talent there. A starting Springbok front-row with Tendai Mtawarira and the Du Plessis brothers means the Sharks should be taking apart weaker sides at the scrum every weekend.
“On paper, we have one of the strongest teams, but we cannot just relax and expect to arrive and win the games. We have to work really hard and front up on game-day,” White said in the build-up this week.
In Bismarck du Plessis alone, this season's captain replacing Keegan Daniel, they have one of the world's best players at their disposal. His leadership comes from the example he sets rampaging around the park and the Sharks' pack will be mobile and effective at the breakdown. Last year the Sharks finished far too low down the rankings for ruck and scrum success considering their pedigree, but a lot of that can be put down to a crippling injury list.
The Sharks though are not all about their forwards. They have two international wings in Lwazi Mvovo and Odwa Ndungane. SP Marais impressed last season with the Kings and has made the move up the east coast. Cobus Reinach and Charl McLeod are both tenacious number nines.
But the impetus is on Pat Lambie and Frans Steyn. If these two players click as expected, with their roles not set in stone at fly-half and inside centre respectively, then the Sharks will have a kicking game to match their powerhouse pack and will simply grind teams out of matches.
It's up to the Bulls to respond to that this weekend. Sure Victor Matfield is back and his return will be closely scrutinised by every man and his dog in South Africa, which is actually helpful.
It almost distracts away from the fact that the Bulls are starting again.
Those that have headed out of the exit door include among others Chiliboy Ralepelle, JuandrÃ© Kruger, Jano Vermaak, MornÃ© Steyn, Wynand Olivier and Zane Kirchner.
All are huge international players whose loss would be sorely felt at any time, but the fact that so many have departed in the same window must have left coach Frans Ludeke with his head in his hands.
It therefore sticks the impetus on the Bulls' young talent to step up, including Jurgen Visser, Louis FouchÃ¨ and Jono Ross.
And yet despite all of those losses above, the Bulls will still arrive at Kings Park with a backline featuring five Springboks. Francois Hougaard is over his injury problems at scrum-half, there are two Test centres in midfield with Jan Serfontein and JJ Englebrecht, plus the threats of Bjorn Basson and Akona Ndungane on the wing.
Is the general thought process that the Bulls will struggle this season given those already mentioned departures actually just an illusion? Even in the pack Ludeke still has Pierre Spies, Flip van der Merwe, Werner Kruger and Dean Greyling starting.
It means that the Bulls may not be as weak as everybody seems to think, or perhaps want to think down in the Western Cape and over in Durban. The message from captain Spies at Thursday's team announcement was simple.
“We have more than enough experience to carry us through the season. We've lost a lot of experienced players but we've got a great bunch of young players coming though.”
Prediction: The Bulls usually would expect to outmuscle teams but we can't see that here, with Bismarck and young gun Pieter-Steph Du Toit controlling the set-piece and Lambie guiding the Sharks home. Sharks by seven!
Know your Super Rugby? Try out this Fantasy Rugby game this season at testrugby.com.
Sharks: 15 SP Marais, 14 Odwa Ndungane, 13 Paul Jordaan, 12 Frans Steyn, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Patrick Lambie, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Ryan Kankowski, 7 Willem Alberts, 6 Marcell Coetzee, 5 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 4 Anton Bresler, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis (c), 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Replacements: 16 Kyle Cooper, 17 Dale Chadwick, 18 Lourens Adriaanse, 19 Stephan Lewies, 20 Jean Deysel, 21 Charl McLeod, 22 Heimar Williams, 23 S'bura Sithole.
Bulls: 15 Jurgen Visser, 14 Akona Ndungane, 13 JJ Engelbrecht, 12 Jan Serfontein, 11 Bjorn Basson, 10 Louis FouchÃ¨, 9 Francois Hougaard, 8 Pierre Spies, 7 Jacques du Plessis, 6 Jono Ross, 5 Flip van der Merwe, 4 Paul Willemse, 3 Werner Kruger, 2 Callie Visagie, 1 Dean Greyling.
Replacements: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Frik Kirsten, 18 Marcel van der Merwe, 19 Victor Matfield, 20 Jacques Engelbrecht, 21 Piet van Zyl, 22 HandrÃ¨ Pollard, 23 Ulrich Beyers.
Date: Saturday, February 15
Kick off: 19:10 (local), 17:10 (GMT)
Venue: Kings Park Stadium, Durban
Referee: Jason Jaftha (South Africa)
Assistant Referees: Stuart Berry (South Africa), Marius Jonker (South Africa)
TMO: Deon van Blommestein (South Africa)
by Ben Coles