CAPE TOWN, Feb 9 (Reuters) - For the second year running the Sharks will start the Super Rugby season with a new coach and the mantle of South Africa’s most likely championship contenders.
Jake White led the side to top of the South African conference in 2014 but not beyond the semi-finals as they slipped to defeat against Crusaders in Canterbury.
White resigned late last year and has been replaced in Durban by former Springbok assistant coach Gary Gold, who has looked overseas for additions to the squad.
In have come two South African-born former England internationals, prop Matt Stevens and lock Mouritz Botha, as well as New Zealand-born wing Jack Wilson, all from English club Saracens.
Scrumhalf Conrad Hoffmann and centre Lionel Cronjé arrive after spending last season with Australia’s ACT Brumbies. The side is packed with Springboks and look the best balanced of the South African contenders.
The Cape Town-based Stormers are already sweating over injuries with forwards Ruan Botha, Frans Malherbe, Nizaam Carr and Siya Kolisi, as well as utility back Damian de Allende all playing no part in pre-season.
Experienced centre Jean de Villiers will miss the entire campaign through injury, while fullback Jaco Taute sits out six weeks with a knee complaint.
They have more worries at lock with Eben Etzebeth and Manuel Carizza also carrying injuries, and Gerbrandt Grobler serving a two-year drug ban.
The loss of Gio Aplon, Deon Fourie, Peter Grant and Tiaan Libenberg will further weaken a squad that looks to be full of promise but lacking experience.
Stormers coach Allister Coetzee has already said this will be his sixth and final season with the side before departing for Japan.
Pretoria-based Bulls have loose-forward Pierre Spies back as their captain after he missed last season in its entirety with a torn bicep and the most of the year before too.
They have also recruited experienced Springboks hooker Adriaan Strauss from the Cheetahs and have live-wire flyhalf Handre Pollard to fill the number 10 jersey.
With a draw that sees them play four of their first five matches at home at Loftus Versfeld, early momentum will be key.
The Cheetahs struggled all last season and there is nothing to suggest much will change in Bloemfontein, while the Johannesburg-based Lions will do well to repeat the seven wins they managed in last year’s competition. (Reporting by Nick Said, editing by Nick Mulvenney)