Cape Town – Winners by landslide ... the Sharks.
At least for loose forward stocks in Super Rugby 2016, they are almost indisputably the South African franchise holding the aces in depth terms.
On paper they possess a veritable embarrassment of riches, with enough resources to be able to fill at least three loose trios of appropriate standard for the competition if they had to.
How cleverly director of rugby Gary Gold and his lieutenants deploy -- and also rotate -- their swollen list of personnel in the department could be a decisive factor in whether the Sharks truly confirm this year that they are a team back on the rise.
As things stand, and in no particular order, they have on their books all of Marcell Coetzee, Jacques Potgieter, Renaldo Bothma, Keegan Daniel, Tera Mtembu, Etienne Oosthuizen (utility), Jean Deysel, Khaya Majola, Philip van der Walt and the fast-emerging twins Jean-Luc and Daniel du Preez. The list doesn’t even end there.
Some will undoubtedly, fitness permitting, feature more prominently than others: the starting flankers for their first major tournament assignments, you would think, will be that Springbok motor-beat character Coetzee on the open side and heavyweight signing from the Waratahs Jacques Potgieter as blindside specialist.
Coetzee is the designated vice-captain anyway, and quite likely to have to stand in as skipper for a few weeks after Pat Lambie’s hugely unfortunate shoulder injury in Friday’s heartening victory over Toulon.
The situation at No 8 may be a little more fluid, with men like the returned Durban veteran Daniel – he would inject any loosie combo automatically with pace and linking skills – Van der Walt (set for his maiden Super Rugby season with the Sharks after sprightly prior service for the Cheetahs) and rugged Namibian international Bothma in a close battle for first rights to the jersey.
But the general scramble for loose forward spots will be healthy and near-immense, when you throw such proven combatants as Deysel, Mtembu and company into the mix; Gold should be able to confidently rest certain players from time to time to keep them fresh without compromising significantly on either balance or quality.
If anything, the pleasant predicament only increased in Toulon with the eye-opening, dynamic displays of the 20-year-old Du Preez twins.
No 8 Dan was first blooded very briefly in Super Rugby off the bench last year, but flanker Jean-Luc is yet to sample rugby at that level. On the evidence of the friendly, both former SA under-20 stars look like exciting wildcards who will keep several infinitely more senior squad-mates firmly on their toes this year.
They are powerful and athletic in virtually equal measures, and each was rewarded with a deserved try in the first fixture of the two-game French mini tour. Jean-Luc was especially assertive with his tireless work in holding up concerted rolling mauls by the Toulon forwards.
Gold would probably find it easier to keep such an abundant loose-forward arsenal collectively game-sharp if there was a Vodacom Cup running parallel to Super Rugby, as had been the case for many seasons.
But that competition has been disbanded, and instead he will have to wait until April to be able to field some of his spill-over loosies in the new, elongated Currie Cup.
Still, that is a relatively minor “headache”.
All that matters to the Sharks and their supporters right now is that they will be able throw an enviable kitchen sink at foes in the loose forward area.
It is a particularly pleasing state of affairs when you consider that over the past two seasons or so they have gradually surrendered such staunch servants in that department as Willem Alberts, Ryan Kankowski and Jacques Botes, who boast not far off 300 Super Rugby caps between them.
Holes to fill? What holes to fill?
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing