Sharks CEO John Smit is hoping to regularly hear the applause of 30 000 people at Kings Park this year as his team mount a strong SuperRugby challenge, but he’s hoping too that other South African franchises are also pushing hard for the title because that will be the greatest benefit to the Springboks’ World Cup campaign.
Smit told The Citizen that there are enormous benefits to be gained from SuperRugby for the Springboks, remembering how crucial the tournament was in 2007 when he led South Africa to the World Cup crown in Paris. Earlier that year, the Bulls and Sharks had competed in the SuperRugby final, with the Bulls snatching a dramatic Bryan Habana-inspired one-point victory.
“The big thing in 2007 was that the Bulls and Sharks had such successful campaigns and so we were very well prepared for the World Cup. If you’ve got a SuperRugby title-chase to focus on, then the World Cup doesn’t become a distraction and SuperRugby was the best platform and preparation for our win in France.
“I hope it’s the same case this year and we have two or three teams right up there because you’re playing against the guys you have to beat at the World Cup. The players should go out intending to win SuperRugby this year and your best-performing players should be the Springboks. That’s what happened in 2007, we had the guys to win the World Cup and they were confident and well-prepared from SuperRugby,” Smit said.
The former Springbok captain is also hoping that Sharks rugby emerges from an unhappy 2013 in which crowd numbers dropped dramatically at King’s Park in response to an unpopular non-possession based game plan employed by Jake White.
“We’re still 14% behind on our season ticket sales but I’d like to see more than 30 000 people at King’s Park on Saturday for our opening game against the Cheetahs. Time will tell, it’s a big challenge, but we’ve been working hard on our marketing, getting the fans closer to the players, having open days and more interaction, whereas they were removed before.
“We had a good squad last year and we could have won the competition, but the environment possibly wasn’t good enough. This year we have an even better squad and a better environment,” Smit said.
The “better environment” is mostly due to Smit letting go of White in what must have been a tough decision for South Africa’s longest-serving Test captain to make; fortunately he has found a top-class replacement in Gary Gold, a former Springbok assistant coach.
“It’s been a pretty seamless transition and Gary has put in place such instrumental plans. He, Brendan Venter and defence coach Michael Horak were all at London Irish together and Gary has fitted in as if he’s been here the whole time.
“So there’s nothing too new happening with the team, Gary understood the vision and his arrival has certainly been a positive,” Smit said.
In terms of the Sharks’ SuperRugby rivals, Smit expects a fierce derby against the Cheetahs this weekend, even though their small pool of players means they will find it hard to maintain a challenge throughout the competition, while the Stormers have a history of success behind them.
But Smit is most concerned by the Bulls, who he says have been able to gather a powerful squad together in Pretoria.
“The Bulls are going to pose a far bigger challenge this year. In the last two or three years, they’ve come a long way, quietly going about their business, and they’ve made some key signings, especially those three Free Staters who will have a massive impact in the pack.
“Pierre Spies is back off the bench and, in the meantime, Victor Matfield will captain the side. Not too many squads have that sort of depth of leadership,” Smit said.