Super Rugby

Sharks not expecting major Lions changes

Philip van der Walt (Getty)
Philip van der Walt (Getty)

Durban - Super Rugby 2018 dishes up a massive fixture in its first weekend when the Lions host the Sharks at Ellis Park on Saturday. 

The Lions are favourites, having finished the tournament as losing finalists in both 2016 and 2017, but there is an element of the unknown about how they will go in 2018. 

With Johan Ackermann having left for Gloucester, the Lions are now in the hands of Swys de Bruin, who makes the step up from assistant coach to head coach. The franchise has retained the services of most of their players from 2017 - they have lost just three - but with a new figure at the helm the other South African teams in the competition will be licking their lips. 

For the first time since 2015, the South African sides are all in the same Conference, which means that there is more riding on these local derbies. 

The sides met in the quarter-finals of last year's tournament, also at Ellis Park, and dished up a classic. 

It took a long-range, last minute Ruan Combrinck penalty to bury the Sharks as the Lions secured a 23-21 win. 

It was a result that left the Durbanites crushed, but you have to go back all the way to 2014 to find the last time the Sharks beat the Lions in Super Rugby. 

Since then, the Lions have won six in a row between the sides and seven of the last 10. 

The Sharks, though, have recruited and have a number of new players at their disposal. 

Robert du Preez jnr, Makazole Mapimpi and Leolin Zas headline the intake, and with the likes of Jean-Luc du Preez, Dan du Preez, Franco Marais, Akker van der Merwe and Tendai Mtawarira bulking up the pack, there is a real optimism at Kings Park this season.

There first test will be the Lions, who have been the only South African side worth talking about in recent seasons. 

According to Sharks loose forward Philip van der Walt, the visitors know what to expect.

"I don't think so," he said when asked if the Lions would offer anything different this year.

"I think they will be even sharper. They'll try and build on the successes they've had on their attacking play.

"They've been doing well and have had two finals and they'll be as motivated to get third time lucky and win it. I don't think they're going to change much."

Van der Walt has just returned from a stint in Japan with the Canon Eagles, and while he missed out on the majority of Sharks pre-season training, he likes what he has seen from his team-mates so far.

"The nice thing we have at the moment is that there are so many players putting their hands up to get that spot in the team. Even with the Boks we have, we have players who are pushing them. It's great to have the youngsters pushing the senior guys," he said.

"It's a new opportunity for us to improve. We owe the Sharks a good season. We all want to play in finals and we all want to win, and I think it's been a long time coming now.

"I think we have the team this year to achieve that."

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