After nearly five months of competition, including 16 pool matches and hour upon hour of training, the Sharks have reached Saturday’s Super Rugby qualifier against the Reds in Brisbane (11.40am kick-off SA time).
Should the Durban side emerge victorious, they will return to SA for a semi-final against the Stormers in Cape Town next Saturday. Defeat will consign the Sharks to the Super Rugby scrapheap of also-rans.
However, a number of star performers have helped get the Sharks to this point.
We take a look at some of those standout players that have made a difference this season.
Bismarck du Plessis. With John Smit having headed to English club Saracens, Du Plessis started the season as the clear first-choice hooker, but initially battled to find his best form.
However, consecutive man-of-the-match performances in weeks three and four played no small part in helping the Sharks build some winning form before their overseas tour.
The abrasive hooker has added his typical physicality and aggression to the Sharks pack, with his ball-carrying ability also providing the side with all-important momentum.
The importance of Du Plessis’s proficiency in creating turnovers should also not be underestimated.
Marcell Coetzee. The 21-year-old would surely be a contender for player of the tournament. After really bursting on to the SA rugby scene during a sensational Currie Cup season last year, he has gone on to start all but one game in this season’s Super Rugby competition, consistently starring for the Sharks.
It was no real surprise when Heyneke Meyer picked him as his openside flank for the Test series against England, where he once again impressed.
Coetzee has been the leading tackler in Super Rugby while also playing an important role as a ball carrier. His ability to play at 6 or 7 has proved to be an added bonus.
Keegan Daniel. Having received the unequivocal backing of his teammates to take over the Super Rugby captaincy, Daniel’s ever-improving leadership has been an impressive feature this season.
Just as valuable, though, has been his ability to slot in successfully at No 8 or on the flank, with the livewire loose forward continuing to punch above his weight just about every time he takes to the field. Such has been his impact that Meyer admitted he had been forced to reconsider his plans and include the 27-year-old in the Bok squad for the England series. Daniel has also maintained his try-scoring tendency, scoring the second most number of tries for the Sharks this season with six.
Tim Whitehead. In seasons gone by, the make-up of the Sharks’ midfield has been regarded as a bit of an Achilles heel, but there is no doubt that the presence of Whitehead has added real solidity to this central channel this year.
The highly rated former Stormer joined the Sharks at the end of last year, impressing in the pre-season and then quickly establishing himself as a key member of the Sharks’ starting line-up.
A classic centre, who hardly misses a tackle and possesses a strong fend-off that makes him a menace on attack, Whitehead has enjoyed an industrious debut season for the Sharks.
His ability to slot in at either 12 or 13 adds to his value.
JP Pietersen. This has been something of a comeback season for the 26-year-old, who has re-discovered some of the devastating form that many pundits felt had gone missing in recent seasons.
Pietersen started the season in the unfamiliar position of outside centre, with the hope of being able to give the Sharks some extra go-forward in the absence of a few injured ball-carrying forwards.
To his credit he happily gave it a go, but with mixed results.
Back in his preferred position on the wing for the second half of the season, though, Pietersen has been back to his brilliant best, culminating in his man-of-the match performance in the final pool game against the Cheetahs.
Pat Lambie. Although injuries have plagued the young star at times this season, and his all-round form and impact have wavered, one shouldn’t forget the important role he has played.
Handed the crucial No 10 jersey for the first two thirds of the season, Lambie had a big job to do in marshalling a new-look backline that had to take on extra responsibility because of the raft of injuries that had left the forward pack far from full strength.
Although there wasn’t always the best forward foundation for him to work from, Lambie has been an accurate accumulator of points, and it was his match-winning performance against the Highlanders, when he scored all 28 of the team’s points, that sparked the Sharks’ revival.