SHARKS PREVIEW: Durbanites are out to save their season

rugby03 May 2024 06:29| © SuperSport
By:Gavin Rich
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Lukhanyo Am © Getty Images

Lukhanyo Am might have been stretching it a bit when he suggested that the Hollywoodbets Sharks’ season would become a success if they win the EPCR Challenge Cup, but he would be correct if he suggested it would go a long way towards saving it.

In this era where the South African involvement in Europe is stretched across the primary cross-hemisphere league competition, the Vodacom United Rugby Championship, and the Investec Champions Cup, the bottom line aim surely for every team is to do well enough in the former to qualify for the latter.

To get into the Champions Cup, you need to finish in the top eight of the URC. The Sharks failed to do that last year, which signified their season as a failure. So far this year it has remained a failure simply because they’ve bombed again in the URC, and with three rounds of the competition league phase to go, they have no mathematical chance of qualifying for the Champions Cup via the conventional route.

Winning the secondary EPCR competition that they were condemned to play in this season though would give them entry into next season’s Champions Cup. Of course, winning silverware would be great for the Sharks, but Challenge Cup successes don’t stick in the global rugby memory, and if you were brutally honest, the Sharks haven’t played anyone in the competition that they should remotely be expected to lose to.

The one team that might have pushed them would have been Edinburgh, who they played in their quarterfinal, but they played the game at home at Hollywoodbets Kings Park and that gave them a considerable leg up. But even Edinburgh aren’t anywhere near the level of the top teams in the Champions Cup, and that’s where the Sharks need to be competing next year.


So getting into that competition will save the season for the Sharks, as it will cancel out the disappointment of such an abjectly poor URC campaign given that it gives you the same prize as finishing in the URC top eight. As written earlier in the week, it will also give South Africa an important first embryonic footprint on the European competitions.

Make no mistake then, the Sharks have plenty to play for, a huge amount in fact, because surely the owners of the Sharks wouldn’t be happy with another season of seeing second rate opposition coming to Durban on the EPCR weekends. So skipper Am, who has won a major trophy called the Webb Ellis before so is no stranger to success, is right to talk up Saturday’s lunch time shoot-out at the Twickenham Stoop.

“It (the season) would definitely be a success,” said Am earlier in the week, adding that this would be a stepping stone to future success for a squad that has shown signs of turning their fortunes around over the past two months.

“Next season, we do want to win more silverware. From where we started, to where we are right now, we have grown tremendously as a team and a squad,” said the Sharks captain.

“With the new coaching staff coming in, with new players coming in, this was almost our first season together as a group. We are in a good position now. We are happy with where we are, even though we had ambitions for both competitions.

“This is the game of rugby. Sometimes things do work out and sometimes they don’t. All our energy right now is in the EPCR playoff.”


Neither team has of course been announced yet but if both teams do go full strength the Sharks’ marquee players will outweigh the Clermont-Auvergne marquee players. That is not to say though that the visitors, for that is what they officially are this week even though the venue, the home of English club Harlequins is really a neutral venue, are not formidable.

Among the players on their books are Wallaby lock Rob Simmons, George Moala the Tongan international, the French international flyhalf Anthony Belleau, who will be a key player in the match, Argentine internationals Tomas Lavinini, Bautista del Guy and Marcos Kremer, the dangerous wing Alivereti Raka who should have an interesting personal duel with Makazole Mapimpi, and the powerfully built hooker Étienne Fourcade.

For the Sharks this game will be all about handling pressure, something that the number of big name Springboks such as Eben Etzebeth, Bongi Mbonambi, Am himself and Mapimpi should make easier. Siya Masuku, who has done wonders for the Sharks’ game since displacing Curwin Bosch as the go-too No 10, will have an important role to play, and will be looking to reprise his man of the match performance in the win over Scarlets in the URC last Friday.

If Masuku cooks again on Saturday, and the Springbok laden pack gives him the ball he needs to orchestrate matters from the pivot position, there’s no good reason why the Sharks can’t secure their place in the final at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on 24 May.

Challenge Cup semifinal: Hollywoodbets Sharks v Clermont-Auvergne (Saturday, 1.30pm)