Durban - Sharks coach Robert du Preez expects a tough start to the 2017 Super Rugby season when they travel to Australia.
The Durbanites have an easier fixture list this year, as they will play the five Australian franchises and not those from New Zealand.
They start their season-proper with away matches against the Reds (Brisbane, February 24) and Brumbies (Canberra, March 4), before returning to Durban to host the Waratahs (March 11).
Despite not facing Kiwi opposition, Du Preez remains wary of the Australian teams.
“It’s going to be a tough challenge in Australia because the Reds have put together a strong team and I have no doubt they will be a tough team, likewise the Brumbies, also at home," he told the Sharks' official website.
The early message the coach has delivered to the team is all about putting in the hours to make sure the platform is developed for the challenge that lies ahead.
“For us it’s going to be crucially important to work hard every day. Work hard to improve - that’s the most important thing. Then I’d say the discipline that goes with that, especially in the tough training conditions we have here in Durban at this time of the year. The boys need to look after themselves. They’re putting in hard yards during long training sessions so it’s important that we minimise any niggles that we might pick up.”
Of his own challenge - this being his first head coaching season at Super Rugby level - he feels he is in no different position than anyone else, but that he is excited for what is coming.
“It’s a challenge, a challenge for any coach at this level, but we’re taking it one day at a time and everyone, is looking forward to the challenge.”
The Sharks players and coaching staff returned to Kings Park this week to resume their pre-season training.
Du Preez is pleased with the way his players have come back from their holidays.
“The guys have returned to training after the Christmas break in good shape and I’m happy,” he said. “It was a long pre-season, seven weeks, so they had a well-deserved break in December. They’ve come back and been tested and generally I’m happy with the results.”
Casting his eye over the greater squad with an eye to team selection in six weeks’ time, Du Preez admitted that there are selection headaches, but the kind that every coach wants: where there is competition for places, making sure that everyone works as hard as possible to impress the coach enough to force his hand at including them in the match-day 23, come the first game in Brisbane.
“What’s really been pleasing is that the youngsters we brought into the squad have performed well on the training field and they’ve brought good energy. They will push hard for places in the team and that’s what excites me.”
As always, there is a mix of senior players along with new ones or youngsters, and what has helped with the bonding process is the fact that they’re all in the same boat, all out to prove themselves within the context of healthy competition.
“There’s a good spirit in the camp, hard work and discipline have really brought the guys together. It’s always good to have that balance between the experienced and young guys in the team," Du Preez added.