John Plumtree (right) and his Sharks team have been hard at work.

Durban – If the Durban humidity has been getting to you lately, spare a thought for the Sharks rugby players who have been training twice a day since the beginning of December and are still only “90 percent” there in terms of their fitness and conditioning, according to tough taskmaster John Plumtree.

“Most of the guys are just about there, but a few still have some way to go in getting their body fat percentages down,” the coach said yesterday while his charges underwent a fierce session at the Larry Vorster dojo in the city centre. The players wrestled, boxed and grappled in yet another session aimed at ensuring they are in peak condition when their Super Rugby season kicks off in Bloemfontein against the Cheetahs on February 23.

The Sharks squad is showing promising continuity from last year, when they made the final against the odds, with not a lot of comings and goings. The notable departures are Fred Michalak (Toulon) and Steven Sykes (Kings), but in their places come the Lions duo of Butch James and Franco van der Merwe. Veteran James will cover Patrick Lambie at flyhalf and Frans Steyn at inside centre.

The Sharks this year will have two reasonably low key warm-up games instead of contesting the now defunct Tri-Series in Cape Town, which has not suited them over the past few years. It was never a successful tournament for the Sharks, and this year, instead of playing their South African Super rivals, they will play the Leopards in Pietermaritzburg on February 8 and a week later the Pumas in Nelspruit.

“We will get a physical enough workout against those teams, both of whom don’t stand back, as we work our way upwards to the big kick-off,” Plumtree said.

“I think we are in a good place. We have been able to keep more or less the same squad now for three years after losing a number of senior players in 2007 and 2008. The junior players back then are now the seniors, and are relishing leadership roles. Guys like Keegan Daniel and Bismarck du Plessis are really taking charge.”

Plumtree said the Sharks had seriously addressed their perennial problem of starting slowly, and understand that this year they have to hit the ground running. Over the past two years they travelled overseas early in the competition, but this year their first eight games are in South Africa before a tough trip to New Zealand in April to play the Chiefs and Highlanders, after which they head to Australia to face the Reds and Force.

“Starting well is vital. We have to get points on the board before we travel.

“The last two seasons we started poorly and that left us playing catch-up. It creates a massive amount of pressure where, with half the season remaining, you have to win all your games to qualify for the play-offs.

“But it is all about home games. If you don’t win your home games in Super Rugby, you are in massive trouble. The past few seasons we started off travelling, whereas in 2013 we have more home games initially. So we have to hit our straps at the outset and get wins behind us.”

Plumtree says the hectic travel his team had to do in the play-offs last season confirmed the importance of winning your conference.

“Failing that, you have to at least book a home qualifier. Having to travel to play knock-out games like we did in 2012 is just too much of a disadvantage.

“Because there is so much rugby now, I also feel players are starting to pace themselves, especially international players. It is why you have to have such good depth throughout your squad.

“You simply cannot play with the same team all the time, and how we use the players is going to be vital as to whether we peak at the right time.” – The Mercury