Johannesburg – Perennial title contenders the Sharks are in the best position to realise their potential in this year's Super Rugby competition.
The winds of change have swept through the coastal franchise with the arrival of director of rugby Jake White in the latter part of 2013.
The former Springbok coach reaffirmed his reputation as a rugby brain when he steered the Brumbies from 13th place in 2012 to the final in last year's competition.
Given the fact that the Brumbies do not possess the same wealth of talent as the Sharks, White may well be able to transform the Durban franchise from habitual runners-up to champions.
The 2007 Rugby World Cup-winning coach has more than a dozen Springboks in his squad to lead their campaign, and has expanded the team's depth over the pre-season with some exciting talent coming through.
“One thing about this group of players is it is a bit of a mindset. We've got some good players and we all know that,” White said ahead of their opening Super Rugby match against the Bulls in Durban on Saturday.
“I mean we are spoiled for choice in terms of the Springboks we have, so at least we can be a bit more daring than most teams.”
Following a successful 2012 Super Rugby season where they lost out to the Chiefs in the final, the Sharks made a confident start to last year's edition, winning their first three matches on the trot before suffering their first defeat to the Brumbies in Durban.
Inconsistency crept into their campaign and the slowly moved down to a mid-table position, where they remained for eighth place overall having won eight and lost eight of their 16 matches.
Long-time coach John Plumtree left the team in 2013 before the season restart after the June break. Sharks assistants Grant Bashford and Hugh Reese-Edwards took over the reins for the remainder of the competition before they too departed from the Durban side.
Springbok strongman Bismarck du Plessis has been entrusted with the captain's armband, while White deputised flyhalf Pat Lambie, Jean Deysel and Odwa Ndungane.
After almost nine months on the sidelines, Springbok centre Francois Steyn will be hoping for an injury-free season with White expecting the stalwart to anchor his backline.
“He is a phenomenon that guy. Not many guys have won a World Cup at 19 and not many guys have had two knee injuries and can play like that,” White said of the 26-year-old Steyn.
“The thing is, he is so calm and he understands what we want. He is very important to the way we want to play.”
In a move to settle the side, White has given his assurance that Lambie, who had been fielded at both number 10 and 15 throughout his career, would play flyhalf for the Sharks.
“I rate Patrick Lambie. He gets confidence out of playing at 10. He gets confidence out of co-ordinating the game there and having Francois Steyn next to him,” he said.
“There are a lot of positives in his game. One of the things I've spoken a lot about is that he is going to play 10 and he gets confidence from the fact that he doesn't have to worry that he is going to be messed around.
“He doesn't have to go and finish off at fullback. Dan Carter doesn't have to go and play at fullback for the Crusaders and Larkham never had to play fullback when he was playing at 10.”
With the Super Rugby season stretching over nearly six months, it had become a marathon instead of a sprint with player depth a key component to the successes or failures in the competition.
White said he was excited about the depth he had at the Sharks. It fuelled his confidence and should be able to take them to the top of the premier provincial rugby competition in the world.
“One of the things I learnt with the Brumbies last year when we played against the Chiefs in the final was that when they brought their bench on we couldn't match it. Not to take anything away from the Brumbies, it is just that the Chiefs have been together for so long they had a fantastic bench.
“You will never win the competition with 22 guys. It doesn't matter how good you are, you will have to use every single one of these guys and it gives me confidence to know they can come out and play against other teams.”
The Sharks will also be buoyed by a favourable draw as they have their first bye in the third round, after two matches. Their second bye comes after a further four matches in South Africa.
They only go on their Australasian tour late in April where they will face the Rebels, Brumbies, Crusaders and Blues.
Returning home, they then take on the Stormers in Cape Town before the rest period during the June international window. – Sapa