The Sharks represent South Africa's best, and only, hope of a Super Rugby title in 2014, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Let’s start with the most important question: Has anything changed? Have South Africa’s Super Rugby sides made the necessary adjustments in the off-season? Or will the insanity of persisting with the self-same strategy and expecting a different outcome continue?
With regards to the Sharks, this is a very different outfit to the one that competed in 2013. In the space of six months, new CEO John Smit has effected some very important changes.
First it was Brendan Venter who brought the Saracens blueprint and philosophy to Durban. Now it is former Springbok coach Jake White who has been tasked with taking the team a step further.
White may have learned a lot from his stint at the Brumbies, but what he has always known is that a strong culture makes for a successful team. White has made some wise appointments over the past few months, but he has also identified a need for discipline and a change in mindset.
White has told the Sharks that they can win the Super Rugby title. Indeed, he has told any publication that would listen that the Durban-based side will fly the South African flag in 2014. It is a big statement to make at this point of the season, but there are a number of reasons to believe that the Sharks will go on to walk the walk.
They should beat the Bulls at Kings Park this Saturday and build momentum in the subsequent rounds. By the time they tour Australasia in May, they should have entrenched themselves at the top of the South African conference.
Achieving that objective, they will be in a fantastic position to push for an all-important home semi-final place. Their tour schedule is certainly not the toughest, with games against the Rebels and Brumbies in Australia followed by matches against the Crusaders and Blues in New Zealand. Three wins from four are well within their capabilities.
There have been sufficient changes to the Sharks’ structures and mindset to warrant such an expectation. It’s a different story when you assess the Stormers, who will go into the 2014 competition with the same blueprint that saw them finish seventh in 2013.
The Stormers boast an excellent defensive system, and one of the most physical packs in the competition. However, while they have the ability to win consistently in the league stage, their one-dimensional approach is more a hindrance than a boost in the knockout games.
In 2014, they will be under pressure from the outset due to their tough draw. They must win their first two games in South Africa and take some momentum into their tour Down Under. Their schedule in New Zealand and Australia couldn't be tougher, as they will play the Crusaders, the Chiefs (the champions), the Brumbies, and the Reds on consecutive weekends.
There have been sufficient changes to the Sharks’ structures and mindset to warrant such an expectation. It’s a different story when you assess the Stormers.
A bad tour will force them to play catch-up for the rest of the campaign. Their uphill struggle will be exacerbated if they lose key players to injury at the back end of the season (as was the case in 2012 and 2013).
Since the end of 2011, when an exodus of Springboks left the Bulls severely depleted, the Sharks and Stormers have been saddled with the expectations of a nation. This year, the former may live up to the hype, while the latter will crumble under the weight of such responsibility.
The Bulls punched above their weight in 2013, and will go into this year’s tournament as underdogs yet again. They have some exciting youngsters, and the return of Victor Matfield will lift them to a degree.
But the loss of flyhalf Morné Steyn will certainly be felt. It remains to be seen if anybody can fill that tactical kicking role, or nail those game-winning goal-kicks. Steyn's value is going to be highlighted by his absence.
The Cheetahs were praised for their balanced approach last year, and should continue to build on that. That said, they aren’t at the point of their evolution where they can be talked about as title contenders. As the 2013 play-off match against the Brumbies confirmed, they still lack the temperament to close out big games.
They will be physically tested when they face the Lions this Saturday. The Lions are set for a difficult season, and will need to temper their expectations. They will have identified certain matches where the chances of victory are greater. They will consider a game against the Cheetahs as one they could win.
Personally, I think they're in for a rough re-introduction to Super Rugby, and will do well to avoid the wooden spoon. Thus is the lot of the weakest South African side in Super Rugby.
This isn't going to change any time soon, and come August, the Lions may well sit in last place. The Sharks, however, stand a fantastic chance of finishing the tournament as overall winners, and that is an encouraging thought if you're a South African rugby supporter.