Experienced flanker Philip van der Walt believes the Sharks have a squad capable of going all the way in this Super Rugby season, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
The Sharks are set to face the Lions in a gruelling season-opener at Ellis Park this Saturday, which is sure to provide early insight into the capabilities of the team.
There has been a cautious element of optimism around the Shark Tank that the Durban-based side could have the firepower to lead South Africa’s Super Rugby charge in 2018 after bolstering their squad in the pre-season.
Two of those new recruits – Rob du Preez and Makazole Mapimpi – are expected to start this Saturday in a youthful backline, while the Sharks boast a settled and experienced pack.
Behind closed doors during the off-season, there has also been an acknowledgement that the Sharks need to begin to embrace a new approach if they hope to compete at the business end of the competition.
Over the last five seasons, the Sharks have featured in three playoffs, but have been unable to reach the final two for a shot at the title (they last appeared in a final in 2012).
This means the Sharks will head into this season with a steely determination to emerge as genuine title contenders, and Van der Walt said he had certainly become aware of this since returning from a stint in Japan.
‘I’m probably even more excited for this season than those before. It’s a new opportunity for us to improve after two years [2016 and 2017] where we reached the quarter-finals without going further. We owe everyone a really good season.
‘We all want to play finals and to win, and I feel it’s been a long time coming now. For any player, it’s always rewarding if you can contribute to a team that can go the full length, and I really think we have the team this year capable of achieving that.’
There does appear to be a better balance to the Sharks’ squad this season, with the additional competition in the backline reflected by the fact that the likes of Curwin Bosch and S’bu Nkosi are only expected to find a place on the bench this Saturday.
Van der Walt said that it was encouraging to see a number of young players pushing for selection.
‘The nice thing is that we have so many guys looking to put their hand up for a spot in the team. Even with the Boks we have, there are a lot of others really pushing them. There are a lot of youngsters who are energetic and ready to play, and that’s very good for the team dynamic.’
The first challenge for the Sharks will come from the formidable Lions, and Van der Walt said they are expecting a typically ambitious approach from a team that has featured in back-to-back finals.
‘I think the Lions may even be a bit sharper this season, and I’m sure they’ll look to build on the success they’ve had with their attacking play. After featuring in two finals, they will also be motivated to go on and ensure it’s third time lucky.’
Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images