DURBAN – All four youngsters on duty with the Sharks in Singapore will make their Super Rugby debuts against the Sunwolves on Saturday (12.55pm kickoff).
Coach Robert du Preez has commendably backed youth for the vital opener for the Sharks, with Aphelele Fassi preferred to veteran Lwazi Mvovo for the fullback starting berth, while there are places on the bench for hooker Kerron van Vuuren, prop Khutha Mchunu and No 8 Phepsi Buthelezi.
It is a powerful Sharks line-up that is close to a complete Springbok backline in Louis Schreuder, Robert du Preez, André Esterhuizen, Lukhanyo Am, Sbu Nkosi and Makazole Mapimpi.
Fassi, at the back, is the exception, and he will welcome the wealth of experience surrounding him.
Although only Nkosi and Am can be considered incumbent Boks, the others have been capped in the last two years, and all of them will be in the reckoning for Springbok selection later this year.
The loose trio is another rock-solid area for the Sharks. At No 8, Dan du Preez has much to prove after he was first included in the Bok squad last June, but was later dropped.
Tyler Paul, at openside flank, was one of the revelations of the 2018 South African season. The former Southern Kings forward played lock in last year’s campaign, and impressed with his work-rate and aggression before switching to flank in the Currie Cup, where he was a stand-out performer.
Another star of the Sharks’ Currie Cup win, hard-as-granite Jacques Vermeulen, is at blindside flank, and he is a more than capable stand-in for the injured Jean-Luc du Preez.
The front row features Springboks in Coenie Oosthuizen, Akker van der Merwe and Tendai Mtawarira, and it is worth noting that the Sharks still have Thomas du Toit and Chiliboy Ralepelle to come back from injury.
This Sharks team should be too strong for a Sunwolves team that have mustered just six wins in three seasons of Super Rugby, and will be in the spotlight when Sanzaar meet next month to discuss the competition format going forward.
In a few days, #OurSharks will take to the field for their opening game of the Vodacom @SuperRugby tournament, when they take on the @sunwolves in Singapore.— The Sharks (@TheSharksZA) February 13, 2019
We hear from @CellC Sharks coach, Robert du Preez, prior to the team's departure earlier in the week.#OurSharksForever pic.twitter.com/xiYfMK5E8F
There are calls to dump the Japanese representatives because of their non-performance, while the argument that a Super Rugby team is strengthening the game in the Land of the Rising Sun is redundant, because most of the Sunwolves squad comprises New Zealanders, South Africans, Australians and Pacific Islanders.
To be fair, in the off-season, there have been strong measures taken to strengthen the Sunwolves’ challenge in a year when the eyes of the rugby world are on Japan, the World Cup hosts.
They are to be coached by the vastly experienced Tony Brown, the former All Black and Highlanders flyhalf who played seven seasons for the Sanyo Wild Knights in Japan, and also enjoyed stints with the Sharks and the Stormers.
The @CellC Sharks are in Singapore ahead of our opening 2019 Vodacom @SuperRugby fixture against the @sunwolves, looking to get the season off to a positive and successful start on Saturday.— The Sharks (@TheSharksZA) February 14, 2019
See #OurSharks team here: https://t.co/eNesoHAi7r #SUNvSHA #OurSharksForever pic.twitter.com/r0dxhAt6ui
Brown has said that the Sunwolves will play fast-paced Japanese-style rugby this year, which is all good and well, but it is the defence that has to be sorted out as a top priority – last year, the Sunwolves conceded an average of 40 points per match.
You would think the Sharks have too much firepower for the Sunwolves, but their coaching staff will no doubt have pointed out the Stormers’ shock loss in Hong Kong last year to this side as evidence of what the Sunwolves can do on their day.
15 Aphelele Fassi, 14 Sbu Nkosi, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 André Esterhuizen, 11 Makazole Mapimpi, 10 Robert du Preez, 9 Louis Schreuder (captain), 8 Dan du Preez, 7 Tyler Paul, 6 Jacques Vermeulen, 5 Ruan Botha, 4 Hyron Andrews, 3 Coenie Oosthuizen, 2 Akker van Merwe, 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Bench: 16 Kerron van Vuuren, 17 Juan Schoeman, 18 Khutha Mchunu, 19 Gideon Koegelenberg, 20 Phendulani Buthelezi, 21 Cameron Wright, 22 Rhyno Smith, 23 Jeremy Ward.@MikeGreenaway67