Cell C Sharks Head coach Robert du Preez would have had a few sleepless nights trying to configure the look of his starting side for the first Vodacom Super Rugby clash of the 2018 season this weekend.
That’s not because he couldn’t find the right players for each position, but because of an abundance of competition for each jersey that would have presented him with a more than welcome puzzle to complete.
Throughout the pre-season training and during the warm-up campaign against the Vodacom Bulls and Racing 92, the players have all put up their hands; the younger players have pushed the older ones; those with experience trying to outdo the young guns.
That all bodes well for Saturday’s Vodacom Super Rugby clash with the Emirates Lions (17h15 kick-off at Emirates Airline Park in Joburg) when the Cell C Sharks will look to put a marker out on the competition and prove their worth. They’ll be up against a Lions’ side equally ambitious to get their campaign off to a winning start and to prove that they are the real deal.
Du Preez’s team selected for the clash shows a good mix of new and old, youth and experience with flyhalf Robert du Preez (Junior) and wing Makazole Mapimpi making their debuts for the team, having both featured prominently in the warm-ups.
Ruan Botha leads a generally very experienced pack, while Philip van der Walt and Andre Esterhuizen are both named to start following their Japanese club commitments during the off-season.
The side has a very settled look about it, and are excited to get their campaign underway.
A team’s pre-season preparation for a tournament like Vodacom Super Rugby almost translates into a rugby season of its own, given that the Cell C Sharks have been preparing for the competition for nearly three months.
The players (and coaches) are itching to get stuck into action, with this week’s opening clash against the Lions in Joburg presenting the opportunity to put the players’ efforts to the test and to use up some of that energy that’s been building up.
“Pre-season has been tough but very rewarding,” explains the exciting Sbu Nkosi who burst onto the scene last year and looks to become a fan favourite (if he isn’t already). “We’re in quite a good space both as a team and as individuals and if we can implement what we’ve been taught and what we’ve been doing in all the pre-season training we’ll be very competitive. The variety of training and conditioning has enabled us to adapt, to vary our play according to the situation.”
Although there has been a shift away from a primary focus of pure conditioning, to more of a complete training regime that mixes fitness with skills, Nkosi believes the Cell C Sharks are in prime condition.
“I think our conditioning is one thing that should give us an edge, we’ve done a lot of different things and I think that will give us an advantage.”
Now in his second season after making an explosive debut in 2017, he accepts that there can be no resting on laurels or his newfound fame.
“I haven’t had a feeling of relaxation, the pressure and excitement is there every campaign and every year, but I do feel more confident. I try to force myself never to relax, to never be satisfied because I want to push myself to build and go even further.”
Given the competition for places in the backline, no-one can use his reputation and Nkosi is no different.
“There’s good competition in every position, that drives the players to work even harder and it drives the quality of the training sessions which ultimately is to the benefit of the whole squad. For me, the competition is a personal thing, I’m a person who likes to grow continuously and I think relaxation leaves no room for growth.”
Another factor counting in the Cell C Sharks’ favour is the continuity the team enjoys from Currie Cup last year.
“We achieved a lot with a young group of players last year, it certainly helped our confidence, especially us youngsters. There is also continuity in the way we played in the Currie Cup which was quite expansive and entertaining, but also smart, and then how we’ve applied all that to how we want to play this season.”
Looking to this weekend’s game, he explains that there are no expectations of the Lions simply because that’s not where the team’s focus lies.
“In the preparations we’ve done for this match, we haven’t focussed on the Lions but rather on ourselves and what we can bring to them. That’s not to disrespect them, but we have our own plans that we want to implement rather than focussing our attention on reacting to what we expect the to bring to the game.
“But I can say that we have prepared well for this match.”
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