Durban — It is fitting that the Sharks are fielding close to their strongest side of the year for their debut in rugby’s premier provincial competition, the Heineken Champions Cup, and Harlequins will field the full brunt of a Springbok-laded team at Hollywoodbets Kings Park on Saturday.
The Heineken Cup is a step up from the United Rugby Championship as it comprises the best teams from the URC, the English Premiership and the French Top 14.
The Stormers, Bulls and Sharks finished in the top half of the maiden URC while the Lions didn’t and are in the Challenge Cup.
Having to qualify for this competition is what makes it so special … It is the best against the best in what really is the cream of the crop.
Big money in rugby is in the Heineken Cup and it is the Sharks’ mission statement is to win it — CEO Ed Coetzee told the media this in January — and their recruitment of superstars such as Eben Etzebeth, Bongo Mbonambi and Siya Kolisi was with the Heineken Cup in mind.
So it comes as no surprise that Kolisi has been named as captain for the whole of this competition, and not just because Thomas du Toit is suspended and Lukhanyo Am is injured.
Kolisi back at No 6 flank and Etzebeth at No 4 are thus the premier changes in the Sharks team announced by Neil Powell.
When Etzebeth last played for the Sharks — against the Glasgow Warriors in October, before the international break, he was the Man of the Match and it was such a pity that the Sharks’ next game — against Ulster — was postponed because of illness in the ranks of the Irishmen.
The Sharks would have been at full strength for that game and now this match against Harlequins they are finally back at their strongest.
“Having Eben back is huge for us, and you would have seen what a great job he did for us in his one previous appearance against the Warriors,” said Powell. “That’s what we want from him every week, we want him to set the tone for us.
“What we saw against the Warriors is just the type of player Eben is. He sets high standards for himself, as he does when he plays for the Springboks. He just has a very big internal drive. He’s just that kind of person.”
Etzebeth’s return means Vincent Tshituka moves from the unfamiliar second row back to blindside flank. “That was just a horses for courses selection, it was something specific we wanted against Cardiff, but with Eben back we can now move him back to the flank,” explained Powell.
Powell said this week was a far more settled one for his team after the disruption caused by the departure of coach Sean Everitt and also because the Sharks had a short turnaround from the Cardiff game on the Sunday to the Ospreys on the Friday.
“Last week was difficult for lots of reasons,” he said. “We have had the luxury of time this week. We got the detail done first and then built up our intensity later in the week. This week has been much easier which is good because we are going into a difficult competition. I am really happy with what has been done by us over the last few days and hopefully, that will translate into a good performance against Harlequins.
“Harlequins are a very unpredictable team who like to run from everywhere so our defence is going to have to be very well organised, but I would like us to be a team that is good both with and without the ball.
Sharks starting VX: 15 Boeta Chamberlain, 14 Werner Kok, 13 Francois Venter, 12 Ben Tapuai, 11 Makazole Mapimpi, 10 Curwin Bosch, 9 Jaden Hendrikse, 8 Phepsi Buthelezi, 7 Vincent Tshituka, 6 Siya Kolisi (capt), 5 Gerbrant Grobler, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Carlu Sadie, 2 Dan Jooste, 1 Ox Nche. Replacements: Dan Jooste, Ntuthuko Mchunu, Khutha Mchunu, Hyron Andrews, Sikhumbuzo Notshe, Grant Williams, Lionel Cronje, Rohan Janse van Rensburg