Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – The proof of the pudding, of course, will be in the eating.
But as the Sharks lead the South African guard as earliest tourists of Australasia in Super Rugby 2020 – beginning with the Highlanders in Dunedin on Friday (08:05 our time) – they should already be chewing on the good likelihood that the four-game itinerary contains a few pluses and associated win possibilities for them.
Just for one thing, and in an event that has already earned publicly-stated approval from their new head coach Sean Everitt, having some five weeks away from Durban at this brutal time of the year humidity-wise could aid their already evident quest to play a more adventurous, ball-in-hand brand of rugby.
By the time they return for successive, probably influential home encounters with SA conference rivals the Jaguares (March 7) and Stormers (March 14), it could still be pretty steamy and slippery at Kings Park … but not as bad as if they’d spent much of February playing there.
After a few weeks of uncomfortable training – and then the opening-round victory over the Bulls last Friday – on their home paddock, the squad should welcome the more temperate climes of New Zealand, particularly, for the next fortnight or so.
While it may well yet prove the trickiest portion of the quartet of challenges, as the Hurricanes in Wellington follows after the Dunedin date, even the NZ leg serves up reasonably rosy hope that the Sharks could prosper in one, or even both assignments.
When they tackle the Highlanders, they will be playing the only team to have had a bye in the first round, so perhaps not as fine-tuned yet as they would like.
For their part, the Sharks had shown, after a shaky first half against the Bulls, significant improvement in the pivotal second period which they will wish to assume was confirmation of hitting their straps – their hosts on Friday (moderate eight overall last season and fourth in the NZ conference) could still be coated in thicker cobwebs at kick-off.
Whatever the eventual outcome at Forsyth Barr Stadium, though, the side from KwaZulu-Natal will enjoy the minor luxury of an eight-day turnaround to game two against the ‘Canes in their “Cake Tin” the following Saturday.
By then, they should be feeling fairly acclimatised to the change of time zones, whereas the Hurricanes, by contrast, will just have come off a globe-trotting mini-tour taking in first Cape Town (their surprisingly inept 27-0 reverse to the Stormers) and then Buenos Aires, where they play a confident Jaguares this weekend: their body clocks are likelier to be at sixes and sevens.
While they would be ill-advised to under-estimate it, the Sharks’ Australian leg immediately afterwards (Rebels in Melbourne, Reds in Brisbane) also doesn’t look quite as daunting on paper as it might have done four or five years ago.
That is because the Aussie sides, as has been increasingly the case in South Africa, have been knocked quite hard by defections of once-stalwart players to deals on the more lucrative side of the equator.
Both the Rebels and Reds, just for example, are already each nought-from-one in 2020, and the former are having to adapt to life without such characters as Adam Coleman, Will Genia and Quade Cooper, while the Queenslanders’ prospects this year have been done no favours by seeing the likes of rugged No 8 Scott Higginbotham and muscular midfielder Samu Kerevi seek employment elsewhere.
The Sharks had other problems to contend with last season, but several of their 2020 squad were nevertheless part of a gritty little period toward the end of the Robert du Preez era when their (then three-game) tour of Australia produced some commendable results.
They got off to a flyer by beating the Waratahs 23-15 in Sydney, before only being deprived of a memorable triumph over the eventually title-winning Crusaders when Mitch Hunt scored a converted try in the final minute in Christchurch to ensure a 21-21 outcome.
The Sharks finished off by banking a losing bonus point in a 29-23 reverse to the Chiefs in Hamilton.
This year’s touring party? It’s not totally out of the question, albeit on a slightly longer undertaking, that they could better that plucky 50 percent record …