For now, it’s just a hunch. In a month’s time I’ll revisit the hunch and things may have changed.
But when it comes to the refined 2018 Super Rugby 15-team competition I’m backing the Sharks to be South Africa’s top team.
I’ve made the mistake before of putting too much faith in the Sharks, especially during the 2017 campaign when the team flirted with the awesome and at times produced the awful.
I’ve assessed squad depth and coaching pedigree and haven’t focused too much on the pre-season hit outs.
The results of those matches are irrelevant because of how teams approach the opposed contact practice sessions.
So often teams have cruised through warm-up matches, only to take a beating in the season-proper.
I’m expecting an improved overall South African collective and visiting teams should struggle more when touring South Africa than has been the case in the last few seasons.
Dick Muir’s return to the Sharks will add a dimension that was lacking a season ago. He is a wonderful foil to head coach Robert du Preez and when realism connects with romance it has the potential to rock.
I was equally enthusiastic and bullish about the Sharks winning the Currie Cup final in Durban against Western Province. I underestimated the raw power of Wilco Louw’s scrumming and the effect of a dominant and destructive WP set piece.
Western Province were magnificent on the day and Robert du Preez (junior) controlled the game at flyhalf. It was, for me, Du Preez’s coming of age first class match. The maturity and presence was evident in his display.
His influence was greater than his opposite number Curwin Bosch, but also put in context he was operating behind a pack that was superior in every facet of play.
Bosch and Du Preez are this season team-mates at the Sharks and their combined talents will be destructive.
The Sharks have so many attacking options among their outside backs, with wingers Sbu Nkosi, Makazole Mapimpi and Kobus van Wyk the equal of any combination in the tournament.
Lwazi Mvovo can also cover wing even though the talk is he may be used at fullback. Then there’s Garth April and Bosch who can cover flyhalf and fullback. The midfield is particularly strong and all this team needs is for the pack to consistently front.
If there is doubt at all when it comes to the Sharks, it’s because of the memory of that Currie Cup final mauling. It’s only something that can be buried when they face the better packs in the tournament like the Crusaders and Stormers.
I really don’t know what to make of the Stormers. They offer so much and yet every season they deliver so little in the big moments. They have twice lost home quarter-final matches in the past two seasons, and while there was massive improvement between 2016 and 2017, they still crashed out at the same stage of the competition.
They have the toughest start of all the South African teams, with a match in Australia and two matches in New Zealand to follow the tournament opener at Newlands against the Jaguares.
They’re good enough, in player pedigree, to get the win in Australia and at least one win in two in New Zealand, where even the best of the Kiwi sides have traditionally shown a vulnerability in the first month of the competition.
The John Mitchell factor is giving every Bulls fan confidence that nothing could be as dire as 2017. Mitchell, just by arriving for work, is an improvement on his predecessor but realistically I envisage a 2018 Bulls season that will mirror the inconsistency of the Sharks 2017 Super Rugby campaign.
I am sure the Bulls are going to knock over some bigger names, especially at home, but I also see then struggling on tour. Mitchell’s challenge is going to be consistency and getting the Bulls players mental strength on par with their gym strength.
And finally there’s the Lions, so good in 2016 and 2017, but just not good enough in losing away in the final to the Hurricanes in 2016 and at home in the final to the Crusaders in 2017.
The assistant coach, the highly rated Swys du Bruin, is now the head coach. A new era and a new challenge.
A new style of play?
The Lions of the past two years were easily the most complete South African team and consistently in the top three teams in the tournament.
But they peaked in 2017 and this will be a year of rebuilding.
I see them being a mixed bag; better than the Bulls but not quite as good as the Sharks and Stormers.
A month from now, when there’s a measure of form to assess it could all look different, but right now I’d put my money on the Sharks to be South Africa’s top team and the 2018 Super Rugby champion to be a Kiwi team.
Mark Keohane is a Cape-Town based award-winning rugby specialist and former Springbok Communications Manager. Follow him on Twitter
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