Retired Springboks John Smit and Brendan Venter want to turn around the fortunes of the Sharks by winning this year’s Currie Cup.
The oldest provincial championship in the world kicks off today with a Durban team that has fallen on hard times hosting minnows Griquas.
After reaching last year’s Super 15 final, the Sharks failed to even make the play-offs this season following a sustained midseason slump.
They also lost the previous two Currie Cup finals, including a shock home defeat by Western Province at Kings Park last October.
New Zealand-born coach John Plumtree was fired by new chief executive Smit as the Super 15 season drew to a close.
In his place came ex-Springbok center Venter, widely regarded as one of the cleverest rugby union brains in the country.
Venter, Sean Everitt (backs) and Brad Macleod-Henderson (forwards) are the coaches Smit has entrusted to restore glory.
The Springbok legend won a record 111 caps before retiring when the title-holders bowed out in the 2011 World Cup quarter-finals.
After showing his steel by sacking popular two-time Currie Cup winner Plumtree, Smit likes what he sees in the Currie Cup squad.
“I’m very happy — it is a great looking squad. We have put together a group of players designed to win the Currie Cup,” he said. “Hopefully, we will benefit from a well-balanced squad as older heads combined with 20 year olds.”
His coaches are equally optimistic ahead of a 10-round league schedule, with the top four finishers advancing to the semi-finals in the middle of October.
“The Sharks have a really good squad,” said Venter, who previously coached London Irish and Saracens.
The Currie Cup runs parallel to the Rugby Championship, with six Sharks called up for Tests this month against Argentina in Soweto and Mendoza.
The Sharks have lost their front row — Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira, Bismarck du Plessis and brother Jannie du Plessis — to the green and gold.
Loose forwards Willem Alberts and Marcell Coetzee, and flyhalf Patrick Lambie are other Sharks in the national net.
So strength in depth is crucial as the Sharks, Bulls, Cheetahs, Golden Lions, Griquas and Western Province chase the 124-year-old trophy.
It is no surprise that Smit exudes confidence, with the starting lineup against the Griquas boasting a number of former Springboks.
They include fullback Odwa Ndungane, left-wing Lwazi Mvovo, veteran flyhalf Butch James, and No. 8 and skipper Keegan Daniel.
Long-time Currie Cup competitor Ndungane, whose twin Akona plays on the wing for the Bulls, has been shifted from the right wing by Venter.
Although the Bulls proved the best South African Super 15 side this year by reaching the semi-finals, they may struggle in the Currie Cup.
Center Wynand Olivier, flyhalf Morne Steyn, scrumhalf Jano Vermaak, hooker Chiliboy Ralepelle and lock Juandre Kruger have been lured to France by better salaries.
Loose forwards Dewald Potgieter and Jacques Potgieter are off to Japan for equally attractive pay packets and fullback Zane Kirchner has signed for Irish province Leinster.
Add a spate of injuries and only one starter in the Super 15 home loss to the Australian ACT Brumbies — lock Grant Hattingh — faces Western Province in Cape Town.
Title-holders Province have lost star wing Bryan Habana to France, and centers Jean de Villiers and Juan de Jongh, lock Eben Etzebeth and No. 8 Duane Vermeulen to the Springboks.
However, the likes of fullback Gio Aplon, flyhalf Gary van Aswegen, prop Steven Kitshoff, hooker Scarra Ntubeni and flanker-cum-skipper Deon Fourie should ensure they are contenders.
The Cheetahs exceeded expectations by reaching the Super 15 play-offs and should do well, because they are less affected by Rugby Championship call-ups.
The same applies to 2011 champions the Lions, with lock Franco van der Merwe the lone inclusion in the national set-up from the Johannesburg outfit.
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