Super Rugby preview: The Sharks
With the new Super Rugby season looming large on the horizon we take a look at each of the 15 competitors. Next up, the Sharks!
Last Year: Close but no cigar is probably the best way to sum up the Sharks efforts last time out. The Sharks finished in sixth place overall and had to travel first to Brisbane to play the Reds in the play-offs and then headed back to South Africa for their semi-final against the Stormers. Travelling to Cape Town and beating the Stormers meant they would have to travel to New Zealand for the final. A third flight in as many weeks meant the Sharks were firm underdogs, and in the end the task was too great. But they gained plenty of respect along the way - becoming the first side in Super Rugby history to win two consecutive play-off matches away from home.
This year: As a squad, the Sharks are close to what should be their peak. The players all have solid Super Rugby experience and have learnt their lessons. Super Rugby is no longer about winning on the road to boost chances of making the play-offs, instead it's won by conquering the national conferences - those mini-tournaments that can fast-track a team to the top three on the overall log. And as the dominant team in the Currie Cup over the past six years, the Sharks are well equipped to do exactly that.
Players to watch: In a team packed with internationals, it's tough to single out stars. But centre Tim Whitehead and captain Keegan Daniel are great examples of the Sharks moulding raw potential and grizzled experience into a winning unit, leaving talents like Willem Alberts and JP Pietersen - last year's Players' Player of the Year - to break open games with moments of individual brilliance.
Noteworthy signings: Butch James (Lions), Franco van der Merwe (Lions).
Noteworthy losses: Frederic Michalak (Toulon), Ross Skeate (Agen), Steven Sykes (Kings).
Prospects: This talented team need to avoid being remembered as Super Rugby nearly men. John Plumtree's troops have a favourable home draw and will be determined to make it count. The Sharks showed last year that when the team's firing, they have what it takes to beat anyone. Will 2013 be the year that the Sharks end their Super Rugby trophy drought? It's highly possible.
23 February: v Cheetahs - Away
2 March: v Stormers - Home
9 March: v Kings - Away
16 March: v Brumbies - Home
23 March: v Rebels - Home
5 April: v Crusaders - Home
13 April: v Stormers - Away
20 April: v Cheetahs - Home
27 April: v Chiefs - Away
4 May: v Highlanders - Away
10 May: v Reds - Away
17 May: v Western Force - Away
25 May: v Bulls - Home
29 June: v Blues - Home
6 July: v Bulls - Away
13 July: v Kings - Home