In Profile: Cell C Sharks
The British & Irish Lions tour of South Africa continues this evening as they face our 2021-22 United Rugby Championship opponents, the Cell C Sharks at Emirates Airline Park.
In the continued build-up to the 2021-22 season - the inaugural year in the club's new home - we profile the four South African franchises joining the United Rugby Championship, allowing supporters to familiarise themselves with our newest opponents.
History of Kwa-Zulu rugby
The Kwa-Zulu Natal Rugby Union (KZNRU) may have been formed as far back as 1890, but it took 66 years for the union to enjoy its first Currie Cup final.
In the interim, the province did produce its fair share of quality players, including Springboks Bill Payne, Wally Clarkson and Philip Nel, who led South Africa on the country’s unbeaten tour of New Zealand in 1937.
But the 1940s, 50s and 60s weren’t successful years for the province, although legendary coach Izak van Heerden did manage to fashion two unbeaten seasons in ’61 and ’63, when the Currie Cup competition wasn’t held.
Natal saw very little success in the 1970s, until the arrival of Wynand Claassen from Pretoria in late 1979. What followed was a rare third-place finish in the Currie Cup in 1980, with Claassen receiving inspirational support from Welshman Roger Gardner and former Wallaby Mark Loane.
The standout result was a 22-19 defeat of Northern Transvaal – Natal’s first win over the Blue Bulls at Loftus Versfeld in 41 years.
When the Super Rugby franchise system was launched in South Africa in 1998, the team was called the Coastal Sharks and covered the Kwa-Zulu Natal and Eastern Cape provinces, therefore drawing players from the Sharks, Bulldogs and Elephants teams.
This lasted until 2005, when the Eastern Cape attempted to launch their own Super Rugby franchise, the Southern Spears. That meant that the Border Bulldogs and Mighty Elephants teams were aligned with the Spears (and later Southern Kings) franchise and the Sharks were effectively affiliated with one provincial union only, namely KwaZulu-Natal.
Super Rugby history
The Sharks have been one of the most successful sides competing in Super Rugby since inception in 1996.
Transvaal (now the Lions) lay claim to winning the very first trophy when they defeated Auckland (the Blues) in 1993. After an undefeated run against New South Wales (now the Waratahs), Samoa, Auckland and Waikato (the Chiefs) in 1994, Natal topped the log where they came up against Queensland who defeated them 21–10 at the final at Kings Park.
The Super 12 was inaugurated as a fully professional competition after the 1995 Rugby World Cup when the sport came out of the amateur era for good and embraced professionalism.
Natal would exact revenge in 1996 over Queensland, defeating them in Brisbane (43-25) in the semi-final where they again reached the final, only to lose to an All Black-laden Auckland side at Eden Park.
It was the first of four finals Natal – and later The Sharks – would play up until 2012.
In 2001, Rudolf Straeuli took over from Hugh Reece-Edwards as coach, taking The Sharks to the final which was played in Canberra. The Brumbies won the first of their two titles in that match and it would be a further six years before The Shark were back in a Super Rugby Final.
In 2006, a further two teams were added to the competition – the Cats were split and their teams reverted to their former, independent selves: the Cheetahs and Lions, while Australia were awarded their fourth franchise, the Western Force from Perth.
The Crusaders lost just one game en-route to yet another title while The Sharks finished in fifth place, tie with the fourth-placed Bulls who went through thanks to a 43-10 defeat of the Stormers in the final game of the pool stages. Their points’ differential was 65 to The Sharks 64 if ever there was a closer run finish. But they had lost one less game than The Sharks to go through ahead of them.
Under Dick Muir and John Plumtree, The Sharks played some exciting and enterprising rugby in 2007 to finish top of the log with 10 wins from their 13 pool games, including a last gasp one point win over the Crusaders when Odwa Ndungane scored a try in the corner, which Ruan Pienaar converted from the touchline to win an epic game 27-26.
The Sharks would be on the other side of a one-pointer in similar fashion when Bryan Habana scored a controversial last minute try which was converted in the final at KINGS PARK to give the Bulls their first title.
In 2012, against all odds, and after a slow start to the tournament, The Sharks finished in sixth spot again.
This would mean, again, a trip overseas in the Final Series, where they came up against the 2011 champions, the Reds in Brisbane. There would be no disappointment this time as they defeated the Reds 30-17, nor the following week where tournament hopefuls, the Stormers, lay in wait back in Cape Town.
Despite their hectic tour schedule, The Sharks showed great composure to see off the Cape side 26-19.
However, what lay in wait for them was a hurdle too far to cross. Another flight back over to New Zealand saw to their demise as the Chiefs delivered a 37-6 win against a travel-fatigued Sharks side.
The current Sharks squad is littered with Springboks and international talent, including the 2019 Rugby World Cup winning captain, Siya Kolisi, who made the move to Durban from Stormers earlier this year.
Leading from the front is captain and South African international centre, Lukhanyo Am, while the Sharks back-three features Springboks wingers Makazole Mapimpi and Sbu Nkosi.
World Cup winning prop Thomas du Toit and back-row Sikhumbuzo Notshe are two standouts among the Sharks pack.