CAPE TOWN Feb 14 Talented Springbok back Francois Steyn could provide both the inspiration and leadership for the Sharks in their bid to lead South Africa's challenge on this year's Super Rugby title.
The Sharks were runners-up last year to the Waikato Chiefs and have lost their other three final appearances.
Steyn returned midway through last year from a stint in France but his commitment to the Durban-based franchise's cause steps up a gear as he has been appointed captain to replace Keegan Daniel, who has suffered a long term injury.
"Frans becomes the ideal candidate for the captaincy in terms of experience," coach John Plumtree told the team's website.
"He has the respect of the players, leads by example and he's a winner. We know that everyone will get behind him and support him."
Steyn's backline talents offer numerous options to a side that already boasts Patrick Lambie - seen as the Springbok playmaker of the future - and Butch James, whose past test experience adds to an attacking mix.
The Bulls remain the only South African side to have won the competition - in 2007, 2009 and 2010 - but this year a more credible challenge is expected from the Stormers, who reached last year's semi-finals with the tournament's best defensive record but blew their home advantage.
Captain Schalk Burger is expected back from a season-long layoff with a knee injury as the Stormers kick off with a tough programme, including two away matches against the Bulls and Sharks followed by a home meeting with the Chiefs that could set out their prospects for the rest of the campaign.
They have signed Elton Jantjies from the Lions to challenge Peter Grant at flyhalf, a move that offers the electric Jantjies a profile that could lead him to become a Springbok regular.
It will be the final Super Rugby season for Springboks winger Bryan Habana, who heads to Toulon at the end of the tournament.
The Bulls continue their search for a return to their glory days after losing a golden generation of players over the last couple of years.
They no longer have the same depth at their disposal but are expected to maintain their ability to be competitive and to give little away at their home ground in Pretoria.
It will be the last season for Morne Steyn, whose goal kicking has been a big feature of their play in recent years. He is also going to France at the end of the season.
A new franchise, the Southern Kings, take the place of the Lions and will be based at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth, an iconic seafront venue built for the 2010 soccer World Cup.
But with only one warm-up match under their belts, there are fears the Kings might be little more than whipping boys in their debut season.
Bloemfontein-based Cheetahs remain a team with the ability to pull off an upset with an exciting brand of running rugby but who are unable to produce the consistency needed to be real contenders.
Young flyhalf Johan Goosen was one of the revelations of last season before injury cut short his campaign. (Editing by Greg Stutchbury)