Last season, the Sharks had finished a paltry fourth in the South African conference almost slipped under the rugby radar as the focus shifted to those involved in the play-offs. Photo by Steve Haag/Gallo Images

At the end of last year’s Super Rugby pool stage, the fact that the Sharks had finished a paltry fourth in the South African conference almost slipped under the rugby radar as the focus shifted to those involved in the play-offs.

Although there were undoubtedly mitigating circumstances – an inordinate injury toll foremost among them – it was nonetheless an extremely disappointing under-performance from the coastal side.

However, it was a result that did not escape the attention of Jake White when he took up his post as director of rugby, and he has been quick to highlight the importance of the Sharks winning their derby matches this season – particularly those at home.

It starts with tonight’s match against the three-time champs and last year’s conference winners, the Bulls. In terms of the Sharks setting down an early-season marker, the value of victory cannot be underestimated.

“If you dominate your conference, then you’re assured of being among the top teams at the end of the league stage,” White said.

“That means you’ve got to be the best side in the country, and we’re under no illusions that although we have a lot of Springboks and there’s a lot of expectations of us, reputations count for nothing when you get on the field.”

And considering the changes that have taken place at the Sharks since this time last year, as well as the pre-season hype that has steadily built since the Durban team’s Currie Cup triumph, there is obviously a lot at stake for the hosts tonight.

“This weekend is the start of an era, and whatever has happened in the past counts for nothing,” White said.

“Hopefully it will be the beginning of an era where Sharks rugby can dominate for the next couple of years.”

Nevertheless, White also quite rightly highlighted the potential folly of reading too much into pre-season predictions.

“People wrote the Bulls off last year when Victor Matfield, Danie Rossouw, Fourie du Preez and Bakkies Botha were no longer there, and many thought it was the end of an era and their dominance in South African rugby,” he said.

“Yet they finished top of the South African conference and made the semi-finals. Who would have thought that?

“So it would be very wrong for us to think this is going to be a one-sided affair, and not only for this match, but the whole campaign.

“Last year no one gave the Cheetahs a chance and they ended up making the play-offs as well. There is no doubt that South African rugby is strong – I’ve always said that – so we’re taking nothing for granted.”

Another possible leveller is the hot and humid conditions, which often turns handling a sweaty, slippery ball into something of a lottery.

Mind you, White did explain this week that their decision to train during the hottest times of the day throughout the pre-season had been aimed at turning the Durban weather into something of an advantage.

And although these conditions, coupled with some early-season rustiness and the high stakes for victory, are unlikely to make for the most expansive brand of rugby, the Sharks would happily accept victory in any shape or form.

“It is crucial to start well, and it is a home game as well,” White said.

“People have always spoken about the fact that you have to win your home games to give yourself a chance.

“Playing the Bulls in the first game is a great way to start the tournament but, importantly, getting off to a winning start sets the tone early on.”

The Cheetahs, the surprise package last year, should be brimming with confidence for their opening match against the Lions today, writes Jacques van der Westhuyzen.

They have had a fairly quiet build-up, away from prying eyes and the kind of attention some of the other teams have to put up with, but that seems to suit them just fine.

They are a tight-knit unit in Bloemfontein and now know what is required to be successful in this competition.

The good news for coach Naka Drotské is that he has flyhalf Johan Goosen back after a lengthy injury lay-off, and he also has a greater pool of good-quality players to pick from.

If nothing else, the men from the Free State are a stronger group than they were a year ago, and that can only bode well for them.

They are a settled side, strong up front and dynamic at the back. They will do the hard yards in the forwards and strike with the backs.

Man for man they should not have too many problems dispatching the Lions. Johan Ackermann’s side are young and inexperienced, with few stars.

Super Rugby sides will not receive four points this season when they have a bye, reports Sapa-AFP.

Introduced to the tournament a few seasons ago, the rule guaranteed teams eight points each year from two byes.

Competition organisers Sanzar said yesterday that the bye points had been scrapped “with the fan in mind to make it easier to follow competition progress – particularly the latter stages of the season”.

Sharks: SP Marais; Odwa Ndungane, Paul Jordaan, Frans Steyn, Lwazi Mvovo; Patrick Lambie, Cobus Reinach; Ryan Kankowski, Willem Alberts, Marcell Coetzee; Pieter-Steph du Toit, Anton Bresler; Jannie du Plessis, Bismarck du Plessis (capt), Tendai Mtawarira. Replacements: Kyle Cooper, Dale Chadwick, Lourens Adriaanse, Stephan Lewies, Jean Deysel, Charl McLeod, Heimar Williams, S’bura Sithole.

Bulls: Jurgen Visser; Akona Ndungane, JJ Engelbrecht, Jan Serfontein, Bjorn Basson; Louis Fouché, Francois Hougaard; Pierre Spies (capt), Jacques du Plessis, Jono Ross; Flip van der Merwe, Paul Willemse; Werner Kruger, Callie Visagie, Dean Greyling. Replacements: Bongi Mbonambi, Frik Kirsten, Marcel van der Merwe, Victor Matfield, Jacques Engelbrecht, Piet van Zyl, Handré Pollard, Ulrich Beyers.

Weekend fixtures


Cheetahs v Lions

Bloemfontein, 5.05pm. SS1/SSHD/M-Net

Sharks v Bulls

Durban, 7.10pm. SS1/SSHD/M-Net - Independent on Saturday