We take a look at some of the crucial moments which paved the way for the Sharks' run to Currie Cup success in 2013.
New coaching staff: Former Sharks and Springbok captain John Smit took over the reins as the Durban-based outfit's new CEO in April and two months later he fired John Plumtree as director of rugby. Ex Springbok centre Brendan Venter, who previously had stints as director of rugby with London Irish and Saracens in the Premiership, replaced Plumtree while Grant Bashford and Hugh-Reece Edwards guided the team for the rest of the Super Rugby campaign. However, Brad MacLeod-Henderson was then appointed as head coach for the Currie Cup campaign. He was also the forwards coach and worked alongside Sean Everitt, who was the new back-line coach, and Venter.
Opening round defeat: The Sharks' Currie Cup campaign got off to a dreadful start when they suffered a 32-30 loss to Griquas at Kings Park in Durban on August 9. They started the match with young players in Sizo Maseko (right wing), Brynard Stander (flanker) and Edwin Hewitt (lock) in the starting line-up and several other inexperienced players on the bench. However, with experienced heads like Jacques Botes, Odwa Ndungane, Butch James, Charl McLeod and Jean Deysel also in their ranks the 2012 runners-up were expected to kick off their campaign with a victory in their backyard. Griquas had other ideas, however, and secured the win through a last-minute try which Nico Scheepers converted.
Beating the Golden Lions in Durban: Many enthusiasts questioned the decision to get rid of Plumtree after that defeat to Griquas. The Sharks needed a win in their next match to silence their critics, and they did just that by beating the Lions 33-25 on August 16. It wasn't easy though and they only secured victory thanks to a try from new full-back SP Marais - who joined from the Kings after Super Rugby - with six minutes left before the end of the match.
Losing to Western Province in Cape Town: After their narrow victory over the Lions, the Sharks travelled to Bloemfontein where they secured a narrow 18-15 win over the Cheetahs before beating the Blue Bulls 34-18 in Durban the following weekend. With three out of four victories, they headed to Cape Town full of confidence, and keen on avenging their 25-18 loss to the defending champions from last year's final. But WP had other ideas and beat the Sharks 25-19 at Newlands in Cape Town on September 7.
Beating Griquas in Kimberley: The loss to WP was a big setback as it ended a three-match winning run for the Sharks. Their next match was against Griquas in Kimberley on September 14, who apart from beating the Sharks in their opening clash were also competitive at home throughout the competition. The Sharks fought back after trailing 24-12 before claiming a 25-24 victory thanks to a try in injury time from Wiehahn Herbst.
Thrashing the Cheetahs in Durban: It's funny how a single point can make a difference to an entire season. Griquas' season only got worse after that defeat to the Sharks - they were eventually relegated from the tournament - while the men from Durban issued a warning to the other teams with a superb display before beating the Cheetahs 50-26 in Durban the following weekend. The hosts crossed the whitewash seven times in total with Lwazi Mvovo leading the charge with a brace of tries. Other tries were scored by SP Marais, Tim Whitehead, Keegan Daniel,Cobus Reinach and Heimar Williams.
Edging out the Blue Bulls in Pretoria: The Bulls were battling to stay in the race for the play-offs when the Sharks faced them at Loftus Versfeld on October 4 while the Sharks were involved in a tussle with Western Province to secure the top spot on the table. With so much at stake it was always going down to the wire and Butch James was the Sharks' hero when he landed a penalty in the 79th minute to secure victory. This after Francois Venter had scored the game's only try midway through the second half and the Sharks were forced to play with 14 men twice after experiences flankers Jacques Botes and Jean Deysel both spent time in the sin bin.
Return of the Springboks: Pat Lambie, Tendai Mtawarira, Jannie and Bismarck du Plessis, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Marcell Coetzee were all included in the matchday squad for their final league match, against Western Province, after returning from duty with the Springboks during the Rugby Championship. These players - especially Lambie and the front row - gave the Sharks a boost at the right time ahead of the semi-finals.
Losing to WP in Durban: Top spot on the table was at stake when these sides met at Kings Park on October 12. In wet and windy conditions, the men from the Cape got the better of the Sharks for the third successive time and clinched a 17-13 victory. Deon Fourie scored a try for WP and Keegan Daniel for the Sharks, and Lambie, who came on as a second-half replacement, missed two crucial penalties in the closing 12 minutes which would have secured victory for the hosts.
Lambie strikes form in the semi-final against the Cheetahs in Durban: Lambie returned to the starting XV for the semi-final against the Cheetahs and made up for poor goal-kicking in the loss to WP by scoring 23 points via a try, four penalties and three conversions. Heimar Williams and Jacques Botes also got five-pointers in the victory as they prepared to take on WP at Newlands in Cape Town.
Bismarck du Plessis cleared of stamping The Springbok hooker was cited for allegedly stamping on Free State Cheetahs flank Pieter Labuschagne in the win over the Cheetahs and their was a nervy wait for everyone connected to the Durban-based outfit. The player, his team-mates, Sharks coaches and supporters all breathed a collective sigh of relief when he was cleared of the charge with advocate André Oosthuizen ruling that the contact Du Plessis made with Labuschagne was accidental.
Their win over WP in the final: WP went into the final as favourites and still unbeaten but they were comprehensively outplayed and suffered their first defeat in a home final in 74 years. It was a fantastic all-round effort and clinical display against their hosts who were favourites to defend their title in front of their home crowd. Lambie repeated his semi-final heroics with another 23-point haul, via five penalties, two drop-goals and a conversion and Charl McLeod capped a superb showing by scoring two tries. The coaching trio of Venter, MacLeod-Henderson and Everitt deserve special praise for breaking down WP's much-vaunted defence which rarely comes off second best, especially at Newlands.
By David Skippers