Ahead of the 2017 season we take a closer look at each of the 18 teams participating in this year’s tournament. Next up, the Sharks.
Plenty of long-time veterans have left Durban’s sunny coastline for pastures new, so can the Sharks, who have added plenty of youth to their squad (plus a certain Frenchman), put up more of a challenge in 2017?
New head coach Robert du Preez takes charge in Super Rugby for the first time and a fresh feel for the 2012 finalists might not be a bad thing.
Last year: 2016 concluded with a bruising 41-0 defeat for the Sharks in their Super Rugby quarter-final with the Hurricanes, a devastating result that stung even more at the end of a long season when the Sharks had done well enough to make the play-offs but also struggled with a number of key injuries.
Squeezing into the last eight by a point, the Sharks started the year brilliantly with wins over the Kings, Jaguares and Stormers prior to a draw with the Bulls.
Consecutive losses to the Crusaders, Lions and Bulls threw water over that early momentum but the Sharks did pull off one of the shock results of the year when they pipped then champions the Highlanders 15-14 in Dunedin.
A tight loss to the Chiefs, surprise win over the Hurricanes back at home and obligatory thrashing of the Kings then followed, and after their Round 14 bye the Sharks fell to the Lions but rounded off the year by defeating the Cheetahs and Sunwolves.
Stephen Lewies was a standout performer with the second highest number of lineout catches in the tournament, and while the Sharks defence was solid they noticeably failed to score tries.
This year: The Sharks face a tough start on the road in Australia up against a Reds outfit of which is expected to perform this year, before tackling the Brumbies, with the following five matches against the Waratahs, Kings, Cheetahs, Lions and Jaguares which are all possible wins before their Round 8 bye.
Away matches follow in Singapore and Buenos Aires but otherwise the Sharks remain at home in South Africa, which has to be a boost, meaning that getting the early trip to Australia out of the way could well prove to be a blessing.
Pat Lambie’s fitness is absolutely fundamental to any success this season – he captains the side but is still just 26 – also certain combinations will need to click, such as in the midfield with Lukhanyo Am, Jeremy Ward (a former U20 star) and possibly Kobus van Wyk, signed from the Stormers and an impressive performer last year.
Although André Esterhuizen, one of the top ten tacklers in the whole tournament last year, he should not be discounted either. Find a combination and stick with it.
Key players: We’ve already touched on Pat Lambie’s major role within the side but aside from being captain, the South African number ten is a matchwinning goalkicker (the kind every side wants) who may well have a decisive say in several of the Sharks’ closer matches throughout the upcoming campaign.
Set-piece dominance feels vital for the Sharks and they have two of South Africa’s premier looseheads in Tendai Mtawarira and Coenie Oosthuizen, who can cover tighthead, and the two over an 80-minute shift can establish the upper hand in the scrum against lesser opponents.
Meanwhile out wide the Sharks’ best finisher remains Lwazi Mvovo, who needs to deliver consistently if the side are to make an impact later in the competition.
Players to watch: A Test debutant off the bench against Wales last year, Jean-Luc du Preez is still just 21 but feels set for a big year in the Sharks back-row.
Former South Africa U20 full-back Curwin Bosch is another to keep an eye on in his second season with the Sharks, and with the two Pietersens, Joe and JP, gone from the back three.
Finally there is no more fascinating signing this season than Clément Poitrenaud, the 34-year-old Toulouse great who has followed the path trodden by his old friend Frédéric Michalak by turning up for a stint in Durban. How much Poitrenaud has left in his legs remains to be seen, but what a classy operator in his day, and his experience is very welcome in a young squad.
Prospects: The Sharks have lost plenty of experience and even though this younger crop are no doubt talented, it feels a year or so early to properly challenge for honours, making a repeat of last year’s quarter-final appearance unlikely.
Players In: John-Hubert Meyer (from Sharks (Currie Cup)), Stephan Coetzee (from Sharks (Currie Cup)), Jean Droste (from Sharks (Currie Cup)), Jacques Vermeulen (from Stormers), Rowan Gouws (from Sharks (Currie Cup)), Hanco Venter (from Sharks (Currie Cup)), Benhard Janse van Rensburg (from Sharks (Currie Cup)), Lukhanyo Am (from Kings), Tristan Blewett (from Sharks (Currie Cup)), Jeremy Ward (from Kings), S’busiso Nkosi (from Sharks (Currie Cup)), Kobus van Wyk (from Stormers), Clément Poitrenaud (from Toulouse)
Players Out: Dale Chadwick (to Narbonne), Gerhard Engelbrecht (to Griffons), Kyle Cooper (to Newcastle Falcons), David McDuling (to Canterbury), Giant Mtyanda (to Sharks (Currie Cup)), Tjiuee Uanivi (to Glasgow Warriors), Marcell Coetzee (to Ulster), Jacques Potgieter (to Bulls), Renaldo Bothma (to Bulls), Stefan Ungerer (released), Paul Jordaan (to La Rochelle), Heimar Williams (retired), Wandile Mjekevu (loaned to Kings), JP Pietersen (to Leicester Tigers), Willie le Roux (to Wasps), Joe Pietersen (to Kamaishi Seawaves)
Friday, February 24 v Reds (Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane)
Saturday, March 4 v Brumbies (GIO Stadium, Canberra)
Saturday, March 11 Waratahs (Kings Park, Durban)
Saturday, March 18 v Kings (Kings Park, Durban)
Saturday, March 25 v Cheetahs (Toyota Stadium, Bloemfontein)
Saturday, April 1 v Lions (Ellis Park, Johannesburg)
Saturday, April 8 v Jaguares (Kings Park, Durban)
Round 8: BYE
Saturday, April 22 v Rebels (Kings Park, Durban)
Saturday, April 29 v Jaguares (Vélez Sarsfield, Buenos Aires)
Saturday, May 6 v Force (Kings Park, Durban)
Saturday, May 13 v Kings (Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth)
Saturday, May 20 v Sunwolves (Singapore National Stadium, Singapore)
Saturday, May 27 v Stormers (Kings Park, Durban)
Saturday, June 30 v Bulls (Kings Park, Durban)
Round 16: BYE
Saturday, July 15 v Lions (Kings Park, Durban)