‘Plenty to be excited about’

2012-12-15 00:00

DON’T laugh, but here we are still trying to shake memories of that galling Currie Cup final loss in late October, and the Sharks are already a month into their training for next year’s Super Rugby season.

The Sharks open their 2013 campaign against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein on February 23. The rugby season and the tournament, involving 16 league games, then stretches over seven months, with a three-week break for Test matches in June and the final on August 3.

The bulk of the Sharks squad resumed training last month and their current Springboks, involved in a Test against England at Twickenham three weeks ago, will rejoin them on January 7. After 10 intense months of Super Rugby, Currie Cup and international action, the Boks have been afforded a six-week break.

Assistant Sharks coach Grant Bashford says the remaining Sharks players have returned to training with enthusiasm.

“We are lucky we have the beach nearby and we use that for sessions to freshen up the players. It is really good to have a change of environment, so we move between the gym, the field and the Indian Ocean.

“We are concentrating on skills and conditioning at this stage, but the emphasis will change after the Christmas break.”

Head coach John Plumtree says there is genuine reason to be excited about the new season and there is a determination to climb one step higher by winning a final.

“We have to nail down those opportunities when we have them. We have to be good enough to take advantage when the situation favours us and that is where we have struggled.”

Plumtree is happy with the draw, which sees the Sharks leave on their overseas tour only late in April.

“We tour later this year and have five home games before we travel, so we must pick up points early and build momentum.”

He is also satisfied with his squad, the depth and the balance between the experience of the senior Test players and the young, exciting talent.

There has been very little movement in the squad. Flyhalf Freddie Michalak returned to France mid-year, and his Sharks form carried him into the Test side; lock Steven Sykes joined the Kings.

Pat Lambie will take over from Michalak at flyhalf with Butch James — home again after years with first Bath and then the Lions — providing back-up.

James told the Sharks website that he was both surprised and delighted to be offered the opportunity to return to Durban, where he is also to play a mentoring role.

“I didn’t expect to return to the Sharks and it is really good seeing the familiar faces again.”

The veteran Springbok flyhalf said the Sharks had shown in reaching two finals (Super Rugby and Currie Cup) this year that “they were by far the best team in South Africa.”

“In Super Rugby they showed they can compete with any other team, so we are hoping we can build on that and take it one step further next year. They certainly have a great squad.”

The other new face in the squad is Lions lock and former captain Franco van der Merwe, who has just toured the UK with the Springboks.

Plumtree said that Van der Merwe would boost the Sharks’ lineout, but he is also expecting Baby Bok Pieter-Steph du Toit to emerge as a major force next year.

Springbok hooker Bismarck du Plessis, recovering from major knee surgery, is expected to return after five rounds of Super Rugby and he should be available for the tour to New Zealand and Australia.

“The other hookers in the squad [Craig Burden, Kyle Cooper and Monde Hadebe] will have to stand up in his absence.”

Competition for players will be most fierce at loose forward and centre.

Ryan Kankowski returns from Japan in mid-February and will join a host of quality backrowers in Willem Alberts, Marcell Coetzee, Jean Deysel, Keegan Daniel and Jacques Botes.

Tim Whitehead and Paul Jordaan form an exciting midfield pairing this year. Springbok Frans Steyn is now back in the squad, while Meyer Bosman, the most effective backline distributor, played consistently well at inside centre and flyhalf.

Young Cobus Reinach and Charl McLeod will again squabble over the scrumhalf berth, but the Sharks have still to settle on their third-choice number nine.

The experience and pace out wide is provided by Springboks JP Pietersen, Lwazi Mvovo and Odwa Ndungane, while the under-rated Louis Ludik will want to build on his excellent form at fullback.

“There is plenty to be excited about,” said Plumtree.

“We have made three finals in our last three competitions and we must now kick on and win one of those finals.

“But as we know, just reaching a final in itself is no easy feat.”

The Sharks have 17 past or present Springboks in their squad and they have the depth of talent, the coaching staff and the game plan to mount a serious title challenge.

The challenge for the Sharks is to put that October upset defeat behind them and translate their strength on paper into performance on grass.

Fullbacks: Louis Ludik, Riaan Viljoen, Gouws Prinsloo

Wings: JP Pietersen, Lwazi Mvovo, Odwa Ndungane, S’bura Sithole.

Centres: Paul Jordaan, Tim Whitehead, Frans Steyn, Meyer Bosman.

Flyhalves: Pat Lambie, Butch James,

Scrumhalves: Charl McLeod, Cobus Reinach.

Number eights: Keegan Daniel, Ryan Kankowski.

Flanks: Willem Alberts, Jean Deysel, Marcell Coetzee, Jacques Botes, Tera Mtembu.

Locks: Franco van der Merwe, Anton Bresler, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Jandré Marais, Peet Marais.

Props: Beast Mtawarira, Jannie du Plessis, Wiehahn Herbst, Dale Chadwick and Julian Redelinghuys.

Hookers: Bismarck du Plessis, Craig Burden, Kyle Cooper and Monde Hadebe.

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